BEIRUT: Lebanon’s foreign ministry has summoned the US ambassador over remarks criticizing Hezbollah, a day after a judge slapped a controversial ban on local media covering her statements, state media said Sunday. In an interview with Saudi-owned news channel Al-Hadath aired on Friday, Dorothy Shea said the United States had “grave concerns about the role of Hezbollah, a designated terrorist organization”.
“It has syphoned off billions of dollars that should have gone into government coffers so that the government can provide basic services to its people,” she said. “It has obstructed some of the economic reforms the Lebanese economy so desperately needs,” she added. On Saturday, a judge in the southern city of Tyre issued an order banning local and foreign media working in the country from airing or publishing locally comments by Shea for a year because of her remarks on Hezbollah.
The Lebanese Shiite movement and its allies command a majority in parliament and the cabinet. Judge Mohamad Mazeh said Shea’s comments incited sectarian strife and served to “turn the Lebanese people against each other”. State-owned National News Agency (NAA) said media that violate the ban would be fined $200,000.
But Lebanese media ignored the ruling. In one of several media appearances on Sunday, Shea told broadcaster MTV that a senior government official had assured her the court did not have the authority to order the ban, and that the government would take steps to reverse it. She described the ruling as a “really pathetic” attempt to silence the media, and said the government should focus more on implementing economic reforms. “I would suggest that we all try to put this chapter behind us,” she said.
Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah on Sunday condemned the ambassador’s “hostile behavior”, saying her remarks constituted an “attack” on the country’s “sovereignty and dignity”. He called on Lebanese authorities, and especially the foreign ministry, to “compel the ambassador to respect international treaties that define the duties of diplomats”.
The State Department issued a fiery response to the judge’s order on Saturday, stating: “Hezbollah’s attempt to silence the Lebanese media is pathetic.” In Lebanon itself, Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad dismissed the judge’s order, saying: “No one has the right to ban the media from covering the news.”
Local broadcaster LBC said it would not abide by the ruling, calling it a “non-binding and unenforceable” decision that violated press freedom. A senior judicial source told AFP that Mazeh had “overstepped his prerogatives as a judge”. Mazeh responded to the criticism on Sunday, saying his “conscious is clear” and that he was “fully convinced” he had made the right decision. He was prepared, however, to resign if there was a judicial review.
On Sunday afternoon, hundreds of people demonstrated in Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, expressing anger at the US and support of the judge. They brandished the flags of Hezbollah and its Shiite ally Amal, as well as signs with slogans that read: “We’d rather die than be humiliated” and “We are all Mohamad Mazeh”.
The dispute comes as Lebanon grapples with its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. The Lebanese pound has nosedived against the dollar on the black market, sending prices soaring. The Iran-backed Hezbollah has blamed Washington for the economic downturn, accusing it of preventing dollars from entering the cash-strapped country. The United States and Israel have long designated Hezbollah a terrorist group and urged allies to follow suit. Hezbollah is the only group to have kept its weapons since the end of Lebanon’s civil war on the grounds of defending the country against Israel. — Agencies