Dima Sadek: outspoken female journalist faces threats in Lebanon

Television show host has become known for her criticism of Hezbollah and other political players as the country sinks deeper into crisis

Sitting on the roof of her high-rise apartment building overlooking the Mediterranean, Lebanese television host Dima Sadek scrolled through her phone to bring up a recent death threat that caught her eye on Twitter.

Sadek is used to having both vocal backers and detractors. In Lebanon, high-profile critics of Hezbollah, a powerful Iran-backed political party-cum-militia, attract polarising views.

But she draws more attention than others because she is a Shiite Muslim, from the very community that Hezbollah claims to represent. She is also a woman in a country where misogynistic attacks on female public figures are mainstream.

Despite the daily threats, she refuses to back down and represents a powerful voice in a country where critics are increasingly silenced, either through court, social pressure, online bullying, or murder. In the past year and a half, as Lebanon collapsed economically after decades of mismanagement, she has doubled down on her attacks against most of the country’s ruling elite.

In an interview with The National just weeks after another outspoken critic, Lokman Slim, was found shot dead in a car, Sadek said she would not give up the fight for accountability that her fellow citizens are demanding more than ever.

The threatening tweet she held up to The National showed Salim Ayyash, a member of Hezbollah found guilty in absentia by a UN tribunal of the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, pulling blocks from a Jenga tower stamped with the Lebanese flag. Each discarded block showed the name of a different assassinated critic of Hezbollah.

The block Ayyash was removing in the picture bore Sadek’s name.

“They are saying that Dima Sadek is next. That’s funny. So it just got posted on Twitter and it was sponsored. And then it disappeared,” said Sadek.

Her apparent nonchalance in the face of the threat reflects how such attacks have become part of her daily life.

“Those who hate her most come from the Shiite community. She is seriously annoying for them. She represents everything they don’t want a woman to be,” said Alia Ibrahim, co-founder of Lebanese news site Daraj.

Dima Sadek. Finbar Anderson/ The National

The road from sympathy to critic

Sadek was not always critical of Hezbollah. She started out at the now-closed Assafir newspaper and OTV television – both sympathetic to the group formed in the 1980s by Syrian and Iranian military intelligence as a militia in her native south Lebanon.

Like many Lebanese across the sectarian spectrum, she respected Hezbollah for forcing Israel’s retreat from south Lebanon in 2000 after 18 years of occupation.

“I had huge sympathy for them. But all I knew was that they were some brave guys fighting Israel,” she said. “Of course, now I see it differently. That was when I was 20. Now I’m 40. I do see that it was a bit fishy to see someone backed so much by Iran operating in my country.”

Her opinion changed in May 2008 when politicians tried to dismantle Hezbollah’s communications network and the militia’s fighters took over downtown Beirut. Seventy-one died in the clashes.

“That was shocking for me, because they used to tell us that Hezbollah would never use its arms inside Lebanon,” she said.

The group's military intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2012 to support the Assad regime cemented her views.
When hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in October 2019 to protest against their corrupt sectarian leaders, she joined them. Together, they chanted: "All of them means all of them".

The slogan called for the resignation of all politicians, but a year and a half later, they have successfully resisted the mounting anger against them as the country’s financial crisis deepens.

Yet Sadek continues to use her strong social media presence and her slot on Lebanon’s MTV to publicly shame politicians for corruption as well as unabashedly accuse Hezbollah of murdering critics.

More than once, Sadek also became the story.

When her phone was stolen during a protest in late 2019, a video of her reacting to the theft became a Twitter meme.

She was flooded with threatening calls after her number was made public.

At the time, she said, the stress caused her mother, who has since passed away, to suffer a stroke.

Legal battles

Right now, Sadek has four outstanding lawsuits against her, all brought by some of Lebanon’s most powerful men.

She is being sued by Gebran Bassil, the leader of a Christian party founded by his father-in-law President Aoun, for accusing him of smuggling ammonium nitrate into Lebanon that exploded last August in Beirut’s port.

Another is by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri for saying the Lebanese Parliament’s police act like his “private militia”.

The third is by Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh for saying he hid hundreds of millions of dollars in Swiss banks.

The fourth lawsuit was filed in February by four pro-Hezbollah journalists, days after she went on live TV to accuse the group of assassinating Slim.

The publisher’s bullet-riddled body was found in a rental car near the southern town of Saida on the morning of February 4. No one has yet been arrested for his killing.

The lawsuits accuse her of “slander” and “inciting sectarian strife” and are still being investigated.

“I think I just said what everyone knows. I mean, we all know that Hezbollah is behind assassinations in Lebanon,” she said.

Asked whether it was worth the risk, Sadek paused for a few seconds.

“I don’t want to die. I want to raise my children. I want to see them growing up, but also I can’t just see all this happening and just pretend I’m not seeing it.”

Hezbollah sued Sadek for defamation in 2015. They lost the case, she said.

Lack of investigation

When she accused Hezbollah of Slim’s murder, she did not offer any proof of the allegation. Instead, her monologue argued that most of the dozen or so high-profile political assassinations in Lebanon in recent years were all critics of Hezbollah and its patron Syria. They all remain unsolved.

“I did a whole argumentation, saying that in 16 years … very different people with different orientations were killed but they only have one thing in common: they are all anti-Hezbollah and anti-Syrian regime,” she said.

“I based my argumentation on what the international court said,” she added, referring to the UN tribunal into Hariri’s murder.

When the UN tribunal sentenced Ayyash last December, it said that while there was no direct evidence of Syria or its ally Hezbollah's involvement, the attack "most probably had to involve state actors".

"The state with the most to gain from Mr Hariri's assassination was probably Syria," said a judge.

In the wake of Sadek’s February segment, Lebanon’s parliamentary media committee summoned the heads of three private TV stations for an exceptional session to discuss “unethical media coverage” of Slim’s murder.

Committee head, Hezbollah MP and a former party minister Hussein Hajj Hassan, said insults were not freedom of expression.

But it is not just about vitriol and political spin. Retired sociologist Melhem Chaoul accuses Sadek of engaging in sensationalism rather than journalistic substance.

“She is part of what I’d call post-modern intellectualism: you have a target, and you go after it relentlessly,” said Mr Chaoul, who used to direct the Lebanese University’s Social Sciences Institute.

Sadek does not have much to say on the matter.

“I could also do entertainment and get more fame,” she replied.

Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the Samir Kassir Foundation – a local media watchdog named after a prominent journalist murdered in 2005 – criticised the committee for prioritising Hezbollah’s reputation over journalists’ safety.

He also pointed out that without official channels for such allegations to be investigated, reporters are left with little to work with.

"It's not up to journalists to find proof in assassinations, that's up to the judiciary and they are doing absolutely nothing," he told The National. "In this climate, political accusations become the only available tool for the media to express their opinions because both the judiciary and politicians either willingly ignore their duties or are not allowed to conduct them. This is where the scandal lies."

Anti-establishment and proud

Sadek believes the fact that several politicians recently turned against her strengthens her credibility as an anti-establishment voice.

“Personally, I feel very proud,” she said.

But in Sadek’s own Shiite community, where vocal dissent with Hezbollah is rare, it is difficult to convince people of viewpoint.

In the neighbourhood of Khandaq Al Ghamiq, a predominantly Shiite area where, in late 2019, residents fought with the anti-government protesters Sadek supports, people were dismissive of the TV host.

One man described her as “on the margin”, not representative of his opinions, accused her of being an “agent” and used sexist insults.

Being a woman adds to the abuse that Sadek receives. “She’s attacked as a mother, a daughter, and a wife. You do not see this happening when hate speech targets a man,” said Mrs Ibrahim.

Similar accusations of being marginal and a foreign agent are common and were levelled against Slim, also a Shiite Muslim, for years before his death.

Ali El Amine, a journalist from south Lebanon and a Hezbollah critic, defended Sadek.

"Her courage is important because it affirms freedom of opinion and the right to disagree," he told The National. "Freedom of expression among Shiites is difficult and exposes those pursuing it to accusations of betrayal and threats."

In private, some analysts criticise Sadek’s support of the Christian political party, Kataeb and its leader, Sami Gemayel, who is attempting to rebrand the party as part of the opposition.

A harsh critic of Hezbollah, he resigned with two other MPs from his party immediately after the Beirut port explosion.

Sadek recently praised Mr Gemayel on her Twitter account, calling him a “pillar of the resistance against 'all of them means all of them'."

Supporting Kataeb is controversial among government critics.

“I don’t think it’s fair to criticise Dima Sadek for this. She is not politically associated with the party,” said Mrs Ibrahim. “There’s a huge conversation happening between groups about whether or not the Kataeb can be part of the opposition.”

When it comes to Hezbollah, Sadek recognises that she does not represent a serious challenge to the most powerful force in the country.

“We’re too weak. All we have is our words,” she said of herself and other critics.

Born in Beirut, Sadek avoided south Lebanon for many years but has recently started going regularly to visit her mother's grave in the village of Qana.

Hezbollah, she said, makes it clear they are watching but she does not fear their gaze, even after Slim’s murder.

“Every time I go to the cemetery, five minutes after I arrive, I have some guy from Hezbollah coming after me, but in a very nice, welcoming [way], saying ‘we know you are here, this is your village, please feel at ease’,” she said.