In an unprecedented move, a Lebanese judge banned local and foreign media based in Lebanon from reporting on comments or statements made by the US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea. The ban itself can’t stop the ambassador from making statements, but if it had received the approval and support of the Lebanese government, mainly the Ministry of Information, it could’ve been used as a serious tool to target media and what is left of freedom of expression in Lebanon.
The judge who issued the ban – Mohammad Mazeh – is based in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre – and is known for his connection to Hezbollah and Amal. His decision came against the backdrop of an interview the ambassador gave to Al Arabiya’s TV channel, Al-Hadath, saying that Hezbollah is threatening Lebanon’s stability and preventing economic solutions. Mazeh reportedly issued the ban after receiving a complaint from a citizen who was concerned the ambassador’s comments were “insulting to the Lebanese people.”
In a defiant step against this ruling, many Lebanese media outlets and TV channels continued to broadcast interviews with Shea, and the Minister of Information Manal Abdel-Samad did not approve the ruling, saying that she understands “judicial concern over foreign diplomats interfering in internal affairs, but that disputes with media must be resolved through proper legal channels.”
Of course, the government’s position against a ruling that had a clear Hezbollah stamp on it did not come from a position of independence and sovereignty. While Hezbollah is trying to defy the US and the international community in everything their officials say or do, the Lebanese government – and the Hezbollah-backed political leadership behind it – are worried about possible US sanctions on them based on either the Magnitsky Act for corruption-related sections or the Caesar Act via support for the Syrian regime sanctions – or both.
Hezbollah flags flutter along an empty street, at the entrance of Mays Al-Jabal village in Lebanon. (Reuters)
In addition, the Lebanese government is in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and hopes to enter into negotiations with the IMF and eventually receive a bailout aid package for Lebanon. Any form of defiance against the US or the international community could jeopardize these talks. And according to a report by Al Arabiya, officials from the Lebanese government reached out to Shea to apologize and assured the ambassador the order will be revoked.
Didn’t Hezbollah expect this kind of reaction? At the end of the day, this current government is entirely backed by the Iran-backed group and its allies, and the government led by Hassan Diab wouldn’t defy their agenda. Wouldn’t it be embarrassing for Hezbollah to have the ruling of the judge be rendered ineffective by their own government? Why would Hezbollah take the risk, knowing that the government will not stand by the judge?
Messaging is probably the answer to these questions. Hezbollah knows that today they are incapable of launching any effective campaign against the US or even Israel, despite the latter’s military strikes on Hezbollah’s military bases in Syria, and the American continued maximum pressure campaign and sanctions against Iran and Hezbollah. The Caesar Act that is expected to impact Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon is an additional blow.
Hezbollah is cornered and helpless. They are faced with rising concerns from the Lebanese, but most significantly from their Shia constituency, who by now understand that Hezbollah is the authority in Lebanon and is still defending corrupt practices. Hezbollah also faces an unprecedented financial crisis within the party that hinders them from funding and launching a new war with Israel. They do not have the money nor the resources to fund the war and the post-war reconstruction.
The only tool left for Hezbollah today is to terrorize the opposition, the dissidents, and anyone who dares to question the deteriorating reality. Therefore, the media – being one of the tools that could be used to change public opinion – needed to be targeted.
The judge’s ruling was a message to both the ambassador and Beirut-based media. But Hezbollah’s main concern, its own consistency and the Shia community at large, is even more internal than Lebanese public opinion. Without the blind support of the Lebanese Shia, Hezbollah will not be able to win elections or recruit fighters to their regional wars. And this support is proving to be shaky and more vulnerable than Hezbollah thought. Without the services, seemingly unlimited money coming from Iran, and the generous salaries to its members and employees, the Shia are starting to wonder about Hezbollah’s power and capabilities.
To show that they are still defiant and willing to fight and protect the Shia and Lebanese, Hezbollah first launched a video demonstrating to Israeli targets how they can be targeted from Lebanon with new precision missiles. Then, they lashed out at the US ambassador and the media. Meanwhile, Hezbollah – through Lebanon’s security and military institutions – has been going after activists and dissidents, such as Kinda Al-Khatib and Syyed Ali Al-Amin, among others. The group has rallied some support from this series of moves that will bolster it for a while.
But eventually, Hezbollah will realize that fear cannot replace support and that the Shia have started to feel the starvation and the humiliation, like the rest of the Lebanese people, and that the precision missile project – whether aimed at Israel or not – is not going to put food on the table. With these attempts and threats, Hezbollah is trying to buy time, but time is a luxury that the Lebanese people no longer enjoy.
Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute's Geduld Program on Arab Politics, where she focuses on Shia politics throughout the Levant. She tweets @haningdr.SHOW MORE