BEIRUT (AP) — A Lebanese judge Saturday banned local and foreign media outlets in the country from interviewing the U.S. ambassador to Beirut for a year, calling a recent interview in which she criticized the powerful Hezbollah group seditious and a threat to social peace.
The court decision reflected the rising tension between the U.S. and Hezbollah. It also revealed a widening rift among groups in Lebanon, which is facing the worst economic crisis in its modern history.
Judge Mohamad Mazeh in the southern city of Tyre said he acted after receiving a complaint from a citizen who considered Ambassador Dorothy Shea’s comments to a Saudi-owned station “insulting to the Lebanese people.”
Mazeh said Shea's comments incited sectarian strife and threatened social peace. The judge said while he can’t ban the ambassador from speaking, he can bar the media from interviewing her for a year. Mazeh made the decision on Saturday, the start of the weekend, saying the matter was urgent.
The backlash was swift.
The private LBC TV station said it would appeal the ruling and called it a violation of media freedom. Critics of Hezbollah called it politicized.
But others hailed the ban as “brave" on social media, saying Shea had crossed a line, interfering in Lebanon's internal affairs.
Information Minister Manal Abdel-Samad wrote on Twitter the judiciary may be reacting to the interference of some diplomats in the country's affairs. However, “no one has the right to prevent the media from covering news or undermine press freedoms," she wrote.
The judge’s ruling came a day after Shea told Saudi-owned TV station Al-Hadath that Washington has “great concerns” over Hezbollah’s role in the government.
In her first response to the ruling, Shea called it “unfortunate" in a telephone interview with the local MTV station.
“I think it is a distraction. I wish people would spend their time and attention trying to solve the problems facing the country," she said, adding that the Lebanese government had already apologized to her for the ruling.
“So, no. The U.S. Embassy will not be silenced."
Lebanon is gripped by a deepening financial crisis and talks with the International Monetary Fund for assistance has been complicated by political infighting.
Shea said Lebanon is reeling from years of corruption of successive governments and accused Hezbollah of siphoning off government funds for its own purposes and of obstructing needed economic reforms.
Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite group, and its allies are dominant in parliament and back the current government. It is designated by Washington as a terrorist group and the U.S. has continued to expand sanctions against the group.
However, Washington is one of the largest donors to the Lebanese army, making for one of the more complicated diplomatic balancing acts in the region.
Judge Mazeh wrote that media who interview Shea “would be contributing intentionally or unintentionally to the blatant aggression on the rights of those who feel insulted from the interview,” in a decision sent to media outlets.
Mazeh said violators would be penalized with a one-year suspension and asked the Information Ministry to disseminate the order.
Abdel-Samad said such complaints should be handled by her ministry and the press bodies.