BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 1 (UPI) -- Lebanese special forces surrounded a Beirut-based satellite television station Wednesday to prevent it from airing a program containing criticism of Saudi Arabia, sources at the station -- New TV -- told United Press International.
New TV had planned to invite Saudi opposition figures to discuss the Saudi regime, political and economic conditions in Saudi Arabia, and also the use of U.S. military bases in the country in the event of a U.S.-led attack on Iraq.
But the station sources told UPI that Information Minister Ghazi Aridi had asked New TV Chairman Tahseen Khayat not to broadcast the program scheduled for airing Wednesday night. When Khayat refused, Aridi told him that going ahead would lead to the government shutting down his TV station.
Shortly afterwards special forces surrounded the station and several police were seen entering the building. The police later said they had prevented the program being aired.
Khayat accused the Lebanese government of bowing to pressure from Saudi Arabia, which for the past decade has been providing large financial help to Lebanon to ease the country's serious economic problems. Political sources pointed out that prior to requesting that the program not be aired, Aridi had a meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, who has close contacts with Saudi King Fahd and other top Saudi officials.
Khayat's station supports the Lebanese political opposition and is widely believed to have close contacts with Libya, the political sources said.
Abdel Hadi Mahfouz, head of the National Media Council, an officially recognized body, defended the government decision, saying it was "a precautionary measure to avoid harming Lebanon's foreign ties. It is normal to protect Lebanon's relations with friendly and brotherly countries."
Meanwhile, an official source who asked not to be identified said such a program on Saudi Arabia would only embarrass Lebanon. Saudi Arabia has been the target of Western media criticism following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in New York and Washington and is highly sensitive to critical comment.
Most of the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudi citizens. In addition, the Saudi government has been charged with being slow to respond to a U.S.-led drive to track down and freeze funds belonging to the al Qaida militant group led by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden.