Lebanese Info Minister Blasted for “Clueless” Flippant Remarks
It wasn’t a good week for Lebanon’s information minister who shrugged off queries about rampaging rioters in Beirut due to a severe economic crisis and political strife with laughter and feigning ignorance.
Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad created a stir at a presidential palace press briefing following an exceptional cabinet meeting triggered by street riots in the wake of an economic meltdown and steep drop in the local currency against the U.S. Dollar.
“Citizens want to know exactly what happened,” a reporter asked her about what caused the outbreak of violence and why vandals and looters weren’t caught.
“I’ll have to ask you all,” the minister replied while laughing about the matter. “We’re watching to see what happened.”
“Seriously, what happened yesterday?” the reporter insisted.
The minister continued laughing for no apparent reason. “We’re watching, we’re watching what happened.”
Tweeps were outraged, viewing the reaction as callous and in poor taste as the country plunges into a deeper hole with close to 50% of the population under the poverty level and unemployment hitting record highs.
Adeela tweeted: “We’re so lucky to have such ministers with a sense of humor who turn the ugliest of events into jokes.” She added the hashtag “Farewell Lebanon.”
MTV News reporter Nawal Berry tweeted: “Ask the information minister and government she represents what’s happening tonight in Beirut. Oh sorry, she doesn’t know and they don’t know. They’re…haha, watching…haha, to see what’s happening…hahaha. That’s what she told us and it’s clear that’s what they’re also doing tonight…hahaha.”
Another tweep called Hiba Naccache said of the well-heeled minister: “Is the fashionista information minister watching tonight? Is she still unaware of what’s happening and waiting for us to tell her?”
Reyna from Lebanon weighed in: “The jug oozes with what’s in it. The clown Manal Abdel Samad, who represents the resistance (pro-Hezbollah) government in Lebanon, mocks the people’s pain and citizens’ anger. No comment. A joke.”
Another netizen tweeted: “When the information minister comes out and speaks for the government and addresses journalists in a mocking and flippant way asking them what happened, because as you heard ‘we were watching,’ it sums up the government.”
The cabinet, formed earlier this year after the resignation of ex-premier Saad Hariri, has come under major criticism for being ineffective, corrupt, out of touch with the people, and beholden to Hezbollah, the pro-Iran Shiite Party of God, deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S. and various other countries.
Hariri’s replacement, Hassan Diab, a former American University of Beirut (AUB) vice president, although claiming to head a government of technocrats and experts, is viewed as a narcissistic puppet out to promote himself, his family and his cronies.
Abdel Samad was also taken to task when she said at that briefing she hoped media would be responsible and play a positive role by not exaggerating some negative matters that could lead to drastic consequences for the country.
Raneem Bou Khzam, a news reporter and anchor at LBCI TV, shot back in a tweet: “I wish the information minister would enlighten us and tell us what media are supposed to do when the country’s streets from the north to the south are up in flames. Should we go on the air and tell people there’s a barbecue party on the street with grilled meat and young people? If only each party would stick to its job and cut down pontification about the media. You’re so clever at blaming and holding the media responsible (for stoking trouble).”
The minister recently held a three-day workshop to sound out journalists and experts on how to advance the industry and public media but several attendees found it an exercise in futility.
Her aim was to include their comments in a new media law she’s proposing, which critics see as potentially leading to censorship of online outlets.
A vague code of ethics she brought up was viewed with suspicion, as there were no indications what it may include.
A newspaper headline described her proposed legislation as “a blueprint for a crackdown,” saying the plan, drawn in part on previously suggested guidelines, wasn’t new.
At just about every meeting with media representatives, Abdel Samad seems obsessed with “fake news” and disinformation and makes a point of wanting to rectify the situation, notably by regulating online media and taking a crack at social media users.
Journalists criticized her for suggesting “penalties” and other punishments should be meted out against those who express their views.
Proposed revised media legislation has been languishing in parliamentarians’ drawers for years and just needs to be voted into law. It would replace older versions for print and broadcast outlets dating back to the 1960s and 1990s, respectively.
Mohamad Najem, co-founder of Social Media Exchange (SMEX), warned Abdel Samad planned to crack down on news websites, blogs and social media. He also questioned her plan to create a media regulatory body and asked whether it would be technical in nature or meant to control content.
Like any official organization, journalists fear such a regulatory agency would be established along sectarian lines. Sectarianism, corruption and political baggage have held back Lebanon’s development into a properly functioning modern state.
A tweep called Ameen wrote: “I was delighted with what you (Abdel Samad) said about opening up positions at (state-run) Télé-Liban, in a bid to exercise transparency based on qualifications, but when I tried to apply online, the form had a line requiring one to list one’s religious sect, so I closed it and saw it was the end of the story.”
Early on, Abdel Samad was photographed meeting with local media representatives as two ominous looking security guards hovered behind her. It was unprecedented for bodyguards to attend such meetings.
News website Daraj commented: “Maybe the presence of two security men behind the minister on the one hand, and the insensitivity of the press and freedom people in Lebanon to this security presence at the meeting on the other, represent a key characteristic of the ties between traditional Lebanese media and the political class that have brought Lebanon to the floundering state it’s in.”
According to her LinkedIn page bio, Abdel Samad, who has a PhD from the University of Paris-Sorbonne in tax law, was a lecturer in public budgeting systems and taxation at AUB’s business school. She also headed the value added tax department at the Finance Ministry in her previous incarnation.