Shea accused it of obstructing economic reforms and siphoning off billions of dollars from government coffers. She also expressed “serious reservations” regarding Hezbollah’s quick endorsement of Lebanon’s new government, discussed existing and future sanctions targeting the group, and voiced concern about “threatening language” against the United States in a recent speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Lebanon is mired in a severe economic crisis sharply affecting the day-to-day quality of life. On Saturday, people queued outside bakeries amid worry over a wheat shortage. Lines of cars snaked outside some gas stations as fears of fuel shortages also grew. A serious shortage in dollars in the country has placed strain on the Lebanese pound: despite a decades-old peg of 1,500 to the dollar, the American currency was selling at above 7,000 pounds on the black market.
Nasrallah blamed the United States for the dollar shortage, saying Washington is pressuring the Lebanese central bank to stop the currency from being pumped into Lebanon to curb dollar smuggling into neighboring Syria.
“The issue of dollars is an American conspiracy against Lebanon, its people, its pound, and its economy,” Nasrallah said in the June 16 speech.
On Saturday, Judge Mohammed Mazeh issued an order banning local and foreign media organizations from interviewing or hosting the U.S. ambassador for a year. Any that violated the order would be banned from working for a year and fined $200,000.
Mazeh said Shea’s comments amount to interference in domestic affairs in violation of diplomatic norms. He said the comments “insult many Lebanese … contribute in pitting the Lebanese people against each other and against” Hezbollah and stoke sectarian and political strife.
Lebanon, fragmented by the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, adopted a power-sharing arrangement that divides government positions among religious sects and political parties. But tensions remain.
For the order to take effect, Mazeh told The Washington Post, it must be adopted by the Ministry of Information. Soon after it was announced, Information Minister Manal Abdel-Samad said “no one has the right to ban media from carrying news or limit its media freedom.”
Abdel-Samad said she understands judicial concern over foreign diplomats meddling in internal affairs, but disputes with media must be resolved through proper legal channels.
At least one Lebanese channel, LBCI, said it would appeal the decision. On Sunday, LBCI and three other channels broadcast new interviews with Shea.
Some media reported that Mazeh had been placed under investigation. Mazeh said Sunday he had not been informed of an investigation. If he were, he said, he would resign.
The ambassador said she received an apology from the government, which the information minister denied. “Unfortunately, I think the minister of information doesn’t have all the information,” Shea said.
In true Lebanese fashion, the chaos was punctuated with jabs at both the ambassador’s and the judge’s names: Shea because her last name is close to the word Shia, the Muslim sect that dominates Hezbollah and Iran, and Mazeh because the name means “someone who jokes.”
A prominent Hezbollah lawmaker defended the decision, calling Mazeh an independent judge who stood up for the dignity of his country.
Shea has been called to a meeting with the foreign minister on Monday, but a State Department spokesman said the embassy has not been notified of any judicial action that would apply to it. “Hizballah’s attempt to silence the Lebanese media is pathetic,” the spokesman said in a written message. “To even think to use the judiciary to silence freedom of speech and freedom of the press is ludicrous.”
Ayman Mhanna is executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, which focuses on press freedom in Lebanon. He said the Publications Court is the only legal body authorized to address media issues. Mazeh argued that his position on the Urgent Matters Court gives him the authority to prevent actions harmful to “civil peace.”
Mhanna said Mazeh’s ruling shows again that the country lacks an independent judiciary.
“The fact that judges always have to take into account the balance of power in the country, [to] try to please and appease whomever is the strongest party today, is limiting the ability of the judiciary to play its role in an effective and fair manner in Lebanon in general,” he said.
Mazeh said his decision followed a citizen complaint. In an interview with The Post, he vehemently denied receiving pressure or instructions.
“Let’s assume someone called me to force me to go against my convictions, no matter who it may be,” he said. “I would still never go against my convictions.”
Judicial independence has been hotly debated in Lebanon. Revolts that spread across the country in October led to arrests and interrogations. An order by the state prosecutor this month to investigate people who insult the president on social media drew scorn and increased insults. Mhanna said such orders are aimed at distracting attention from the government’s mishandling of the severe economic and financial crisis.
Lebanon is working with the International Monetary Fund and others to find a way out of the economic hole.
But Mhanna said economic rescue and reforms alone are not enough.
“Today is the time to use every leverage we have to push for good governance as a package deal,” he said. “It’s not a la carte.
“You cannot follow the principles of good governance in how you run your public administration and how you spend your money, while not respecting equality before the law, while not respecting judiciary independence, while not respecting separation of power, while not opening the space for freedom of expression.”