Beirut, Lebanon – A number of Lebanese media outlets broadcast interviews with US Ambassador Dorothy Shea on Sunday, ignoring a ruling by a judge which banned local and foreign media from featuring her statements after she criticised Iran-backed Hezbollah in an interview last week.
Urgent Matters Judge Mohammad Mazeh – who is based in the southern city of Tyre, a stronghold of Hezbollah and its main ally the Amal Movement – said on Saturday that media channels who violate the decision could be closed down for a year and fined $200,000.
He said Shea had interfered in Lebanese internal affairs and violated the Vienna Convention that gives special privileges and immunity to diplomats. Her words “offended many Lebanese”, pitted them against each other and “constitutes pouring oil on the fire of [sectarian] strife”, he said.
In an interview on Saudi-owned al Hadath TV last week, Shea said: “Hezbollah is destabilising the country and jeopardizing Lebanon’s economic recovery.”
She also said a recent speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was “riddled with classic deflections – blaming everything on the United States when we’re Lebanon’s biggest donor”.
Nasrallah on June 16 alleged that a US conspiracy to prevent dollars from reaching Lebanon was behind a dollar shortage that has led the national currency to rapidly depreciate.
He said the US was attempting to starve Lebanon but said Hezbollah would not let that happen and “we will kill them”.
Hezbollah’s growing influence in Lebanon and the region as a powerful group has strained Lebanon’s ties with historical allies in the West and especially among Arab Gulf nations who used to supply the lions share of tourists to the country and gave it billions in aid.
Lebanon’s deep economic and financial crisis has its roots in decades of mismanagement and corruption, while a lack of political will to reform has stalled relations with donor nations. But uneasiness and anger over Hezbollah’s outsized role are of growing concern.
Germany last month became the latest Western nation to designate Hezbollah a “terrorist” group, after the United Kingdom did so earlier this year, taking the lead from the US which has ramped up sanctions on those who aid and abet Hezbollah since US President Donald Trump took office.
‘Attempt to silence’
A number of Lebanese media channels ignored Mazeh’s ruling and broadcast interviews with Shea on Sunday in which she doubled-down on criticism of Hezbollah.
“The attempt to silence Lebanese media in a country that is really known for having free media is really pathetic, it doesn’t belong in Lebanon. That kind of action belongs in a country like Iran,” she said in an interview with MTV news channel.
Contacted by Al Jazeera, Mazeh said the ruling would not go into effect until Tuesday and it would be up to private citizens to file complaints of violations. “I’ve done my part, it’s not my job to go after every violation of this ruling,” he said.
He also said he could reverse the decision if Shea promises not to make statements that “pit Lebanese against each other”.
Mazeh denied the ruling was a result of pressure from Hezbollah. “I swear to god that no one from Hezbollah called me about this issue at all, and in the case, someone called I would not do anything unless I myself was convinced of such a decision.”
Mazeh’s decision has faced backlash from opposition parties and even the information minister of Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s Hezbollah-backed government, Manale Abdelsamad, who said it infringed on media freedom and was “unacceptable”.
But Abdelsamad on Saturday said she was not speaking on behalf of the government and that no officials had apologised to Shea because the government respects the judiciary.
“Unfortunately I think the minister of information doesn’t have all the information,” Shea responded in the MTV interview on Sunday. “A very high-ranking and well-placed official in the Lebanese government … expressed apologies and conveyed that this ruling did not have proper standing and that the government would take the necessary steps to reverse it.”
There are no signs of that yet. Mazeh denied reports he had been referred for investigation and said he would resign if such a decision were made.
And Mazeh has powerful backers. Hezbollah has thrown its support fully behind his ruling.
Member of Parliament Hasan Fadlallah, a prominent member of the group’s parliamentary bloc, said Shea’s statements constituted a “blatant attack on the sovereignty and national dignity” of Lebanon and a “miserable attempt to cover up the conspiratorial role of [the US] administration on the livelihood of the Lebanese people and their national currency”.
Fadlallah called on the foreign minister to summon Shea over her comments.
Following Fadlallah’s statement, state media reported Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti summoned the ambassador “over recent statements” and would meet with her on Monday.
Crackdown on Hezbollah critics
The ban on coverage of Shea is the most prominent episode in a string of recent cases against those critical of the government and the president, both backed by Hezbollah, and Hezbollah itself.
“Saying that there is a troubling trend would be too little. I would say freedom of expression is in a critical, dangerous situation and even at vital risk in Lebanon,” Ayman Mhanna, the executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, a media freedom watchdog, told Al Jazeera.
“The problem is the politicization of justice, the fact that judges either follow direct orders or the political whims of parties by trying to please the political players who were responsible for naming, appointing or promoting judges,” he said.
“Now that Hezbollah is the most powerful player they rule in favour of Hezbollah,” he said.
On June 22, Lebanon’s Military Court charged online activist Kinda el-Khatib with collaborating with Israel and allegedly visiting occupied territories, both of which are crimes in Lebanon, a country that is still technically at war with Israel.
El-Khatib is a harsh critic of Hezbollah, and her family maintains her innocence on all charges.
The next day, state media reported a judge had filed charges against anti-Hezbollah preacher Sayyed Ali al-Amin for allegedly meeting Israeli officials in Bahrain.
Following a widespread backlash, state media issued a correction and said the charges were related to civil peace in the country, rather than collaborating with Israel.
And General Security on June 25 interrogated former Hezbollah fighter-turned anti-Hezbollah activist Rabih Tlais for reasons that remain unknown to him.
“There was the atmosphere of fabricating a file against me on charges of collaborating [with Israel],” he told Al Jazeera.
Tlais said he had decided to stop writing for A New Lebanon, a news website run by an anti-Hezbollah preacher Abbas al-Jawhari, due to fears “they are trying to get to Jawhari through me, which I won’t let happen”.
Jawhari ran against Hezbollah in the parliamentary elections in 2018 and was himself arrested in the lead-up to the elections on drug charges he has said were fabricated.
“It’s very regrettable,” Tlais said. “Welcome to the Republic of Iran.”