Content Regulation / Censorship, Defamation / Reputation, Political Expression
The Case of Sarawak Report and Malaysia Insider
Closed Contracts Expression
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The Judge of Urgent Matters in the Tyre District of Lebanon issued an order banning all media from conducting interviews with U.S Ambassador Dorothy Shea and reporting on them for a year after she publicly criticized “Hezbollah”, the Iran-backed Shi’ite political party and militant group, that holds a “major parliamentary bloc and is represented in the government”. The complaint was brought by a Lebanese citizen, Faten Ali Qaisar, following the Ambassador’s interview with Saudi-owned TV channel, Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath TV during which the Ambassador made comments that Ali Qaisar considered were “insulting to the Lebanese people.” The Judge emphasized that freedom of expression was paramount and safeguarded by the Lebanese Constitution and its laws, but that its exercise must not violate public order, morals and the beliefs of others. After having reviewed the content of the interview, the Judge found that Ambassador Shea’s comments incited sectarian strife and infringed on the “psychological rights” of the Lebanese people. The Judge reasoned that any media interviewing Shea would be contributing intentionally or unintentionally to social unrest, and therefore, any media violating the order would be penalized with a one-year suspension and face a $200,000 fine.
The decision was subsequently reviewed by Judge Yolla Ghotaimi of urgent matters, following an “opposition” filed by the local media group, LBCI Lebanon News, who found that Judge Mohammad Mazeh had exceeded his authority, thus reversed the decision.
On June 27, 2020, Lebanese citizen Faten Ali Qaisar filed a complaint before the Judge of Urgent Matters in the Tyre District, asking the Court to take necessary measures against the U.S Ambassador to Lebanon, Dorothy Shea, after her interview on Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath TV in which she said that Hezbollah had siphoned billions of dollars from the government and was responsible for the economic and political crisis that Lebanon was going through.
The Court dealt with the application as a matter of urgency and issued its ruling on a Saturday which was not usually a working day for the courts.
Judge Mohammad Mazeh issued an order banning all media from publishing the U.S Ambassador’s comments for a year or face a fine of $200,000 and a broadcasting ban, following a complaint filed by a citizen claiming that she was offended by the U.S Ambassador’s interview on Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath TV.
The Judge determined that the Court had the authority to adjudicate the matter citing provisions of Article 496 of the Civil Procedure Law which allows for judges to investigate on their own initiative before taking a decision on urgent matters.
The Judge started by reviewing the U.S Ambassador’s interview with the Saudi-owned TV channel which aired on their Facebook page. After having reviewed the content of the interview, he said that Ambassador Shea’s allegations about Hezbollah incited sectarian strife, threatened social peace and provoked the Lebanese people, turning them against each other and against Hezbollah and what it represents. Her comments were directed against a Lebanese Political party that has strong representation in the Government and a large popular base of support. He said that despite her diplomatic immunity, international treaties and especially the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties forbade any diplomat, no matter which country they represent, from launching sectarian and political strife, which endangers the safety of the people.
Judge Mazeh emphasized that freedom of expression was paramount and safeguarded by the Lebanese Constitution and its laws, but that its exercise must not violate public order, morals or the beliefs of others. He considered that the comments made by the ambassador were tantamount to an attempt on the psychological rights of the Lebanese people, hence justifying the intervention of the judge of urgent matters to protect these rights, pursuant to art. 579 of the Lebanese Code of civil procedure which states that
“The judge may take measures to eliminate the apparent infringement of rights or legal statuses. If the existence of the debt is not subject to serious dispute, the judge of urgent matters may grant the creditor a temporary advance at the expense of his right”;
The Judge insisted that “the rights mentioned in this article are not limited to material and moral rights, but also includes psychological rights and feelings”. Assigning blame to Hezbollah for the current financial and political crisis, the Judge warned could ignite civil unrest, which Lebanon and the International Community have made significant efforts to extinguish.
The Judge concluded that since he could not ban the US ambassador from speaking, he could bar the media from interviewing her for a year, and that any Lebanese media outlets or foreign media outlets operating in Lebanon violating this decision would be penalized with a one-year suspension and face a $200,00 fine. The Judge asked the Minister of Information to disseminate this decision to all media outlets.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision made by the Judge of Urgent Matters in Tyre District clearly contracts expression by limiting freedom of the press and it was met with criticism from many quarters. For example, the Minister of Information which is the official authority responsible for handling media affairs, referred to the decision as “unacceptable” and said it violated freedom of the press although she later said her statement did not reflect the government’s stance.
The decision came against the backdrop of Lebanon’s largest ongoing demonstrations for a year and as many activists had been summoned for investigations and even arrested for criticizing politicians on social and other media. Government critics are often accused of creating political strife and indictments based on laws pertaining to public order can have a chilling effect. The day after the ruling several local media expressed that they weren’t willing to abide by the decision, and one, LBCI Lebanon News called it a “non-binding and unenforceable decision which violates freedom of the press”.
Lebanon’s Minister of Foreign Affairs summoned the US Ambassador after the ruling in hopes to settle this issue diplomatically, and to reportedly warn her not to intervene in Lebanese domestic political affairs. The US Ambassador later gave a statement in which she announced that they had “turned the page on this unfortunate distraction so that we can focus on the real crisis at hand which is the deteriorating economic situation,” as reported by Al Araby.
After his ruling and the backlash, Judge Mazeh tendered his resignation which was accepted by the High Judicial Council. Meanwhile LBCI appealed the decision which was subsequently reversed.
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