Lebanese officials apologized to the US ambassador in the country Saturday after a judge issued an order banning the US diplomat from being able to speak to local media outlets, one day after she criticized Hezbollah in a public interview.
A senior official from President Michel Aoun’s office criticized the south Lebanon judge’s order saying it contradicts international and diplomatic treaties. “This judge should get a warning of some sorts from the Higher Judicial Council,” the official told Al Arabiya English, adding that it was out of the judge’s prerogatives to make such a decision.
According to the official, the Lebanese government reached out to the ambassador to apologize and dismiss the order.
The US Embassy in Beirut tweeted US Ambassador Dorothy Shea’s Friday interview and wrote: “We believe very much in freedom of expression and the important role a free media plays in the United States and Lebanon. We stand with the Lebanese people."
We believe very much in freedom of expression and the important role a free media plays in the United States and Lebanon. We stand with the Lebanese people.https://t.co/7IB2d96CJ8— U.S. Embassy Beirut (@usembassybeirut) June 27, 2020
US Embassy spokesperson Casey Bonfield said the ambassador's interviews with Lebanese media outlets was "quite normal."
He added that it was "disappointing that, with these challenging economic times, some are attempting to distract and censor. We, as Americans, embrace freedom of speech, and the important role of a free media, and we know Lebanon does as well.”
Saturday’s order by the judge came a day after Ambassador Shea blasted Hezbollah during an interview with Al Hadath. Shea said that Hezbollah was destabilizing Lebanon and jeopardizing its economic recovery.
In his order, the judge said that Shea spoke about “a Lebanese party represented in parliament and cabinet and that enjoys a wide popular base,” referring to Iran-backed Hezbollah.
“The US ambassador has no right to talk about this party,” the order added, accusing her of promoting internal sedition and strife.
The judge acknowledged that international law gives diplomats immunity, but said media could be punished for violating the order.
However, a judicial source told Al Arabiya English that the judge’s decision was invalid. “Nothing will happen; it’s contradictory to local and international laws and no media outlets will abide by this. This is strictly ink on paper,” the source said.
Lebanon’s former information minister, Melhem Riachi, said that order was not a laughing matter and lambasted the “joke of a judge.”
In her interview Friday, the US ambassador said that Washington was still looking at if Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government was truly independent and “not beholden to Hezbollah.”
Shea also said that more “counterterrorism sanctions” would be announced against Hezbollah and those who provide the group with material support.
Lebanon’s Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad said, “no one has the right to ban the media from covering the news.”
Asked about the the Lebanese judge's order, Head of Lebanon's Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) Walid Joumblatt told Al Arabiya English that it was "total idiocy and a stupid decision."
The Justice Ministry has yet to comment.