BEIRUT: The TV channel MTV Lebanon has taken legal action against the Lebanese presidency after being banned from entering the parliament building to cover talks on the formation of a new government.
Urgent appeals court judge Carla Shawah told the presidency of the lawsuit — believed to be the first of its kind focusing on media freedom — which comes after a reporter and camera crew from the channel were refused entry to the Baabda Palace last week.
MTV attorney Mark Habaka told Arab News: “We look forward to a decision that is in the interest of press freedom because the decision to deny the MTV team entry to the Republican Palace is unfair and a violation of freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by the constitution.”
The MTV team said it was shocked after being stopped from entering the Baabda Palace to cover binding parliamentary consultations that Lebanese President Michel Aoun held to appoint a prime minister for the next government.
Habaka denied claims that the channel undermined the presidency.
“We consider this move to be a dangerous precedent with regard to undermining the Fourth Estate,” he said.
MTV, like many privately owned channels, has been highly critical of the Lebanese government and Aoun in the wake of the Beirut port explosion on Aug. 4.
Presidential spokesman Rafik Shalala confirmed a statement had been issued by the General Directorate of the Lebanese Presidency explaining the decision to deny MTV entry to the palace.
The statement said: “MTV attacked the president, stripped him of his official capacity, referred to him using his name alone without his title, and persisted in insulting and defaming him as well as describing him using inappropriate expressions. Numerous attempts to get the channel to reconsider yielded no results. All these violations are punishable by law.”
Further infringements could result in the channel being shut down, the statement added.
Habaka said the Republican Palace failed to communicate with the channel before banning it from entry, and the decision came as a shock to the MTV team.
“There is no immunity in the law for the presidency. It is a public department like other public departments in Lebanon, and the law guarantees freedoms, including freedom of expression. We appeal to the judiciary and the law above everyone,” he said.
Asked whether the lawsuit targeted the presidency as a whole or Aoun individually, Habaka said: “The presidency is represented by President Michel Aoun, and he is the one who made the decision.”
The channel said in a news bulletin following the ban that “this is the headquarters of the Lebanese presidency, not the house of Michel Aoun.”
Lebanon’s Media Professionals for Freedom initiative criticized the presidency’s ban on MTV, saying it was “the other face of the unparalleled bankruptcy, distress and piracy.”
It added: “The Republican Palace violated a constitutional principle that guarantees public and media freedoms.”
The lawsuit is one of many filed against the presidency. Lebanese lawyer Majd Harb issued a complaint against Aoun and outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab, alleging both were aware that ammonium nitrate was stored at the port but took no action.
In a statement, the presidency said it hopes the judicial investigation will “clarify the full truth about the explosion, its circumstances and those responsible at all levels.”
The massive blast killed 191 people, injured more than 6,000, left nearly 300,000 homeless and devastated larges areas of the capital. Up to five people are still believed to be missing.
A total of 19 people, mainly customs and port officials, have been detained as part of the investigation.
The search for possible survivors in a residential building destroyed by the explosion in Mar Mikhael street was called off on Saturday after no bodies were found.
Engineer Riyad Al-Asaad, a contractor who joined the search, said: “The Chilean volunteer rescue team reached the same conclusion after three days of searching and removing debris by hand: There are no survivors or bodies.”