Leading politicians executed a two-pronged response Monday to opponents of the closure of MTV, banning demonstrations in the capital by rival camps and “aborting” a conference on public freedoms by packing it with politicians opposed to any criticism of the judiciary.
Meanwhile, State Prosecutor Adnan Addoum rejected a request by MTV’s lawyers to halt the controversial closure decision, saying on Monday that the original, “preventative” ruling to shut MTV and its sister station Radio Mont Liban (RML) was the appropriate measure to take, “in view of the infraction’s impact on society and the rules and regulations that must be followed.”
Addoum stressed that general practice holds that a “preventative” order can be implemented as soon as the court ruling is issued.
MTV and RML lawyers Ghassan Zeidan, George Nakhle and Rudy Madkour requested the reversal of the Publications Court’s decision last Wednesday to shut the two stations on the grounds that neither station had violated the law.
The court found that they had violated Article 68 of the Parliamentary Election Law during the Metn by-election in June by running election advertising, and ordered their immediate and final closure.
As for Tuesday’s rival protests, the Interior Ministry issued a statement saying it had banned the two protests that had been called for the following day to “prevent any clash” between the two camps. The ministry extended the ban on any type of protest gathering to the rest of the country, in view of the “circumstances” the country was experiencing.
The Communist Party had requested permission to hold a “victory for public freedoms” march from Barbir to the Beirut Central District at 5pm; this had in turn prompted the mufti of Tripoli, Sheikh Taha Sabounji, to call for a counterdemonstration at the same time and place, reacting to what he termed an attempt at a “coup d’etat” and campaign against the judiciary.
With pro-regime figures often accusing the opposition of seeking to foment sectarian strife, leading secular groups have been prominent in defending MTV.
Former Marjayoun-Hasbaya MP Habib Sadeq’s Democratic Forum, in announcing that Tuesday’s pro-freedom demonstration had been postponed, said: “The authorities have resorted to using the weapon of sectarianism … seeking to dredge up the atmosphere of the civil war by portraying the defenders of media freedoms as if they are only from one sectarian group.”
The call for a counter-demonstration, Sadeq’s group continued, was an “unprecedented sign of (political bankruptcy) by the authorities, who have been unable to solve a single problem faced by the country.”
Former Beirut MP Najah Wakim told The Daily Star his People’s Movement was “willing to participate in the demonstration and act for freedom of expression as long as it doesn’t take a sectarian angle.”
“It’s pitiful how the government is using a new way to frighten and suppress the public … intelligence organizations are behind the sectarian declaration made yesterday (Sunday) by Islamic religious figures,” he said, referring to Sabounji’s call.
“The Communist Party, which is a secular party, is behind this demonstration, which is why we said we’d participate,” Wakim said.
Representatives of print media have decided to publish a slogan across front pages in Tuesday’s editions. Ad-Diyar newspaper, meanwhile, will protest MTV’s closure by not publishing on Saturday.
At the Press Federation, a conference called to defend public freedoms held Monday and broadcast live on at least two television stations was thrown into chaos after pro-government politicians attended en masse and outnumbered those who had attended to speak out for media freedoms.
A shouting match between the head of the Beirut Bar Association, Raymond Shedid, and pro-regime Beirut MP Nasser Qandil, nearly ended the proceedings. Mediation and intensive closed-door meetings finally saw an amicable conclusion, but Batroun MP Butros Harb, a member of the Qornet Shehwan Gathering, said he walked out after the surprise attendees made their presence felt.
“To my profound sorrow, I noted an unnatural mobilization of political forces whose political records do not demonstrate that they are in the ranks
of those who defend public freedoms,” Harb said. “It got to the point where I asked myself if I was truly at a conference for defending public freedoms … The curses that were hurled after I left took place because some attendees did not respect the right of the Bar Association president to express his opinion.
“They tried to shut him up and attack him, which reveals their true intentions and reasons for attending,” said Harb.
The veteran MP added that he was calling on all “sane” Lebanese to prevent the country’s slide into open political conflict after the conference on public freedoms was “aborted.”
Defense Minister Khalil Hrawi, a member of the pro-regime Consultative Gathering, said his participation at the conference was an “expression of anxiety” by Lebanese concerned about public freedoms. In a statement, Hrawi said it was natural for Lebanese from across the political spectrum to attend such an event, but added that his opponents were exploiting “the cover of defending freedoms to secure political goals that will harm this fundamental issue.”
“We should deal transparently with public opinion so that we can reveal the true goals, and see one political position confront another political position, instead of seeing slogans raised and the public frightened by some false suppression of the freedom of expression,” he said.
The Beirut Bar Association, meanwhile, called on the judiciary to “guarantee freedoms, such that judges take decisions so as to protect public freedoms, and not the contrary.”
“The association’s council once again requests judges to carry out their duties with true independence,” the group said.
Justice Minister Samir Jisr responded to the harsh criticism saying that any attack on the judiciary was an attack on public freedoms. Speaking during a news conference at the Justice Ministry after meeting the Higher Judicial Council, Jisr called for preserving constitutional institutions through the law and preserving the state of law “by word and by deed,” saying that was the only way to protect democracy and public freedoms. He urged magistrates to implement the law rather than redraw it, adding: “If there is a flaw in a certain law, we all have the responsibility to amend it.”
Jisr said that the means of challenging the ruling should be limited to legal channels, not “the street” or elsewhere.
“Those who call for the state of law … should limit the challenge of judicial decisions to means provided by the law and should prevent judicial decisions from being attacked in different places and in the street,” he said.
Jisr said there was no threat to freedom as long as Lebanese loved freedom. He refused to comment on the MTV ruling, and rejected foreign interference, describing it as “odd.” Jisr was referring to the US Embassy’s statement last week in which it said it was “deeply troubled by the government of Lebanon’s decision to close MTV.” Additional reporting by Badih Chayban