Beirut: A Land of Corrupt-unities

The lack of clear accountability mechanisms and unbiased news reporting in Lebanon as a result of clientelism and sectarianism is making the battle against corruption even more complex and difficult to win.

You Stink 2015 Protests, Riad al-Solh Square, Beirut; photo credit: Hassan Chamoun/ Levant Chronicles

 The time has come for registering his new car. John, the young Lebanese owner of a new BMW 328i, drives all the way to the only station for such a service, the “Nafaa” in Dekwaneh.

At the station, the car goes through various checkpoints, where inspectors take a look at a particular function of the car and general status, such as the car’s color and VIN number, to name a few.

Eventually, John’s engine needs to be checked. The inspector looks at John as if he is expecting something, but John doesn’t really respond to the cue. So, the inspector moves on to a different car.

Ten minutes pass by and John is still waiting to make it through the final checkpoint, but the inspector allows other citizens to cut in front of John, who is losing his last nerve with all the wasted time he spends under the heat.

Fed up, an hour later, John sneaks a 10,000 LBP (equivalent to 6.6 USD) bill in the inspector’s pocket, who is now smiling as he signs the release paper for the BMW owner in less than the time it took him to say thank you.

Almost every Lebanese citizen has experienced a similar scenario where they pay a bribe to hasten a public service, all because the MENA region is victim to many forms of corruption that include but are not limited to bribery, nepotism, and embezzlement. Citizen perceptions of corruption, in turn, have been affected.

Based on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index of 2017, Lebanon ranks 143 out of 180, making it among the countries with the highest corruption rates.

However, the issue goes beyond just corruption. When it comes to reporting on government inefficiency, corruption, cover-ups, or any other illegal activities the media in Lebanon falls short.

What’s the reason behind all that? Most outlets are owned by political parties, or are somehow affiliated with politicians, making it difficult for news anchors and journalists to produce unbiased reports or reports condemning any facet of the government.

According to the Lebanese Minister of Information, Melhem Riachy, the main problem is that Lebanese journalists publish rumors on media platforms rather than accurate and verified news to suit their modern newsroom counterparts in the United States of America and Europe.

“Covering corruption is in need of two things, serious investigation and fact-checking, as well as revealing the information to the public in a more American way,” he discussed during a telephone interview.

The Access to Information Law

One milestone that may increase transparency in Lebanon was the ratification of the “Access to Information Law” in 2017, obliging all governmental bodies to post their key documents online, including annual reports, orders and decisions, as well as office expenditures.

“By passing this law, citizens now have the right to access all data from public administrations, so researchers and journalists can now verify the data and have more accurate reports developed,” Dany Haddad, the Executive Director of the Lebanese Transparency Association (LTA), said, “By using this right, you can access the contracts, the payments, and everything that has to do with the public administration, and you can verify what you write in your articles.”

Even though Haddad is optimistic about this new law, Abdo Medlej, the co-founder of Sakker El Dekkene, an NGO that collects data on corruption in public administration, considered it to be rather inefficient.

“Access to Information, which was voted for last year, is barely used because it refers to the NTI Corruption Agency and this Agency doesn’t exist,” he said.

Medlej referred to another law, the illegal enrichment law, which has failed to decrease the rates of corruption within the public sector.

“This law exists since the 50’s and it obliges each public servant to declare their fortune at the beginning and the end of their mandate. All public servants declare, but their declaration is not public and in order to access it, you need to pay a lot and in case you can’t prove illegal enrichment, you will be in jail and fined very severely. Practically, no one asked to have access to any declaration since the law was put in place, which is why Member of Parliament (MP) Ghassan Moukheiber is working on a new draft law,” he added.

Riachy said that the access to information law will make it easier to investigate ministries as a way to scout the sources of corruption, expose them to the public, and hold those responsible accountable.

“It isn’t enough to just say that corruption is evident, because democracy is not about the majority’s vote … what is more important is incriminating politicians who won the votes of citizens but lied to them; that is real democracy,” Riachy continued.

However, the law doesn’t immediately eliminate corruption on its own, because that needs time, resources, and governmental cooperation.

“It needs time to start investigating corruption trying to understand what was  really happening. You need time, you need resources, and you need the public administration to cooperate with you as well. So, we don’t need to only have the law but you need the cooperation by the public administration as well,” Haddad clarified.

Public administration cooperation is a hassle, making it more difficult to fight corruption, especially since an evident trend in Lebanon is exploiting power -or as his excellency Riachy called it in French “trafic d’influence.”  

Transparency International’s Local Chapter Explanation

Citizens have a different outlook on corruption. Transparency International carried out a survey in 2016 to assess citizens’ views on corruption in the MENA, with Lebanon being one of the countries studied.

The survey revealed that 50 million people, or one in every three persons, admitted to paying a bribe within the year and 68 percent of people polled believed their government was failing at fighting corruption.

Within Lebanon, the numbers don’t get much better; 28 percent of Lebanese citizens polled had paid a bribe “at least once or twice” to law enforcement, the judicial system, public schools, public health and/or utility services, and to offices that provide identity documentation, such as driving licenses.

Also, 92 percent of the population believe that corruption has drastically increased since last year and over 76 percent of the population believe that government officials, including the president and members parliament, are corrupt.

Haddad, working for the LTA, which is the local chapter of Transparency International, noted that there is a big distinction between increasing transparency and trying to decrease the rates of corruption in the country, in light of the new access to information law.

“The reason behind having the access to information law is to have more transparency and not to fight corruption. Transparency can lead to decreasing corruption, but it is not the solution for corruption, so having this law can promote transparency but will not lead to the automatic decrease in corruption,” Haddad said.

Lebanese Citizens Discuss their Positions

David Youssef, a 30-something Lebanese graphic designer, blames the system for his own bribery.

 “I think corruption is a bad thing, but if our country was running properly and if the public service employees actually respected citizens, you can get all your paperwork done in no time. But, we go and get humiliated and wait for hours in a cue and your turn never comes. So, the easiest way is to bribe the employee and then you’ll get things done in no time,” he discussed.

On the other hand, John preferred to remain anonymous because like many others, he is afraid of the retaliation that could come with reporting corruption.The situation is not surprising, considering that around 30 percent of those surveyed by Transparency International do not report corruption because they fear any consequences.

“It’s a messed-up part of the government and the people who work there have power backed up that you can’t do anything about it. I have done it because it’s the only way out. It’s like it’s not bribing anymore, but a fine that you have to pay to get your work done,” John noted.

David added that reporting about the act of bribery won’t be made public anyway, because of lack of coverage and awareness.

Sectarianism: check-mate

Sectarianism plays a major role in the upheaval of such problems in the country, which has been a precondition of Lebanese society for many years. At the same time, the media protects certain sects over others.

“In Lebanon, every single news organization is either funded or supported by a political figure, so naturally that news outlet will avoid any controversial discussion about them, essentially making them a tool of that political organization,” says Lebanese journalist and AUB professor Habib Battah in an interview with Al Jazeera.     

In line with Battah’s comments, Medlej criticized the media for being politically motivated.

“We can see as a result that each media is focusing on specific political parties and attacking them while not mentioning the others. While this helps reveal some interesting subjects, it reduces the credibility of the media, since it is not considered very partial or objective. Media should be financially independent to hope that one day they can be impartial,” he said.

The Minister of Information elaborated that sectarianism is a basic composition of Lebanon, just the way other countries have different minorities belonging to various ethnicities or speaking different languages. He called sectarianism a hypothesis of Lebanese culture.  

“To solve the problem we need to start from the given or the hypothesis, just like we solve a mathematical problem. If we don’t use the given, the mathematical solution will be suitable for everything except solving the initial issue,” Riachy said.

The real issue is not the existence of sects but rather exploiting positions of power through sectarianism.

“To bring about a better Lebanese government and to combat corruption, we must separate functions or positions from sects and, instead combine between sectarianism and competence. We don’t have a problem with appointing a Catholic to a position set for a Catholic, but he must be competent and efficient, not someone irresponsible who was just elected for the religion he is affiliated with,” Riachy continued, “The most important part is for him to serve Lebanon.”

Solving the Problem

The Minister of Information has proposed several ways to battle corruption through launching fact-checking projects and educating journalism students on how to efficiently investigate issues as complex as corruption.

 “Speaking as a university professor and not just a minister, I believe that universities should dedicate more of their program to educate students on investigation. The curriculum must include investigation methods that can be taught to both media professionals and students, because investigation must be taken more seriously,” he noted.

Riachy launched a new program titled “Check Facts” in collaboration with a private company,  to educate undergraduate students and the ministry’s media practitioners on the importance of disseminating accurate news.

“In the era of social media, ideas are being discussed the same way they are discussed in a living room, allowing for the spread of rumors instead of news. To avoid that, I launched “Inta Akid (Are you sure)?” If someone says X is a bad person, the first thing that comes to mind should be ‘are you sure’, and if you are sure, where is your proof and evidence because that is very necessary,” he added.

Clearly, a media in the pocket of businesses and governments, at home and abroad, cannot be trusted to cover the news in a bipartisan way.

For that reason, Sakker El Dekkene has put many efforts into pressuring the administrations responsible for corruption on several occasions by revealing data about customs, the real estate register admin, the Ministry of Finance, and others, Medlej disclosed.    

LTA undertakes many initiatives to increase transparency, in light of their lobby for a new whistleblower protection law.

“The whistleblower protection law is so important because it protects citizens and can stop them from fearing reporting against corruption by public servants as long; as the law does not exist, people will always fear, since they have no protection for themselves and their families, so they fear losing their jobs, and so on,” Haddad explained.

LTA also works on empowering the youth with the necessary tools to become more engaged in their communities, through a “Participatory Budget Approach.”

“So, we teach youth in the villages how to read, understand, and do an assessment for their needs in the specific areas where they are living. Based on their needs, they propose projects and submit those projects to municipalities to be included within the budget line in the municipality,” Haddad explained.

Additionally, in light of the 2018 Parliamentary Elections that will be held later this May, Haddad disclosed that LTA is working with fifty young volunteers who will help in monitoring the campaign finals and making sure that the electoral law is implemented according to good governance standards.

What is still in question, as Minister Melhem Riachy said, is the development of a strategy to investigate cases of corruption, which is what LTA is currently aiming for.

“This is new, we haven’t done it before, we are no longer going to be working on reforming the public administration and the legal framework, but we are going to be investigating specific cases of corruption, but it all depends on our means and resources to do that,” Haddad said.

Future Projections

When asked what the future holds, Haddad noted that, “when I started working [in 2010], I was less optimistic, but now it is getting better and better, and the puzzle is getting easier.”

The new law that was passed and the prospective whistleblower law is easing corruption on the legal level. However, accountability is still a troubling factor.

“On the accountability level, it is still too early to talk about success stories, which is why we call it a fight. The accountability process is so slow and, so far, let’s be honest and transparent, nothing has happened; you can’t have any public official held accountable for any wrongdoing or corruption,” Haddad added.

Sakker El Dekkene’s Medlej isn’t too optimistic either.

Change is hard to take place, and this is for political reasons, since the current political system and all its players are working like a team and they all help each other when it comes to fighting corruption. Whenever there is an external player who might be a threat and might enter the political arena, all players hold on together and push him out. So, change is very difficult, but we think that we have the responsibility of working hard toward change until it is a good time to see it happening,” he said.

Haddad mentioned the Penal Code law is supposed to sanction all corrupt public servants, but is not being implemented. The lack of clear accountability mechanisms in Lebanon as a result of clientelism and sectarianism is making the battle against corruption even more complex and difficult to win.

Whether the media covers it qualitatively or not, corruption exists in Lebanon and, according to the Minister of Information, the Council of Ministers is trying to fight it, especially since corruption exists in many sectors and levels of the government.

“When I want to hold a public service worker in my ministry because he stole 100,000 LBP but made a folder with issues worth more than 100,000 LBP, do I have the right to hold him accountable if his authority is the one who is corrupt? Battling corruption is like cleaning stairs, from the highest stair to the lowest and not the other way round,” Riachy concluded.