Committed to exposing fraud, Al-Akhbar appeals ‘AUB Leaks’ ruling

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Al-Akhbar Management

AUB students protest a proposed tuition hike on March 11, 2014. Al-Akhbar

Published Monday, December 1, 2014

The administration of the American University of Beirut (AUB) continues its assault on press freedoms, and the freedom to access and publish information with a view to expose corruption. AUB had succeeded in obtaining an injunction from the court of urgent matters in Beirut compelling Al-Akhbar to delete authentic documents from its website and the personal website of Hussein Mahdi. The grounds of the injunction were that the documents in question were private correspondence protected under the law, even though they contained important information on corruption, misappropriation of public funds, mismanagement, and violations against student and patient rights.

Now, AUB is making an even more egregious move, filing a complaint with the court of urgent matters in Beirut again to prevent Al-Akhbar from publishing any internal documents of any kind and in any way belonging to AUB.

Al-Akhbar’s lawyer Nizar Saghieh has filed an appeal before the civil single judge in Beirut (who considers urgent cases) against the ruling dated November 19, 2014 made by the judge of urgent matters in Beirut Nadim Zwein, requesting it to be either overturned or dismissed. The precatory ruling subject of the appeal had complied with AUB’s requests, and imposed arbitrary measures under penalty of compelling Al-Akhbar to pay a hefty fine, ordering the newspaper to remove important documents and exhibits exposing some of the corruption, wastage, abuse, and mismanagement taking place at one of Lebanon’s most prestigious universities.

At the time, specifically on November 21, 2014, AUB’s administration represented by Attorney Randa Shaker Abu Suleiman, of the Abu Suleiman Law Firm, pressed ahead with its attempts to stifle and gag all voices calling for the preservation of this educational edifice, reform its management, and prosecute wrongdoers. Another summons came from the same judge seeking to issue an urgent and immediate ruling to force Al-Akhbar and Hussein Mahdi, not to remove published documents this time, but to block the publication of any AUB internal documents of any kind and by any means. Judge Zwein will issue his ruling today or tomorrow, but he has preempted this by issuing on November 11, 2014 a ruling forcing Al-Akhbar and Hussein Mahdi not to publish any documents for a period of five days until the new motion is adjudicated, under penalty of paying a fine of 60 million L.L. ($40,000).

Legal experts believe Judge Zwein has a great responsibility ahead of him. If he makes a ruling similar to the previous one, protecting AUB’s administration without studying the content of the documents it is seeking hard to withhold from the public, then this would be a major negative development at the level of the role of the judiciary in upholding the freedom of the press and its function in exposing corruption and wastage in the context of public interest issues.

Al-Akhbar has clarified its position on this important issue in the text of the appeal filed against Judge Zwein’s previous ruling. Its notes included many facts, judicial rulings, and legal opinions: “While classified correspondence indeed enjoy legal protection locally and internationally, when corruption and wastage are established to be present at a hospital and academic edifice receiving thousands of students and patients annually, a journalist is responsible before the public opinion, [and have a duty to] disclose the information in his or her possession. The role of the journalist becomes more complicated, and in many cases, he or she will have to bypass the obligation to protect classified correspondence and inform the public opinion of the criminal offenses committed by those in charge of the hospital and academic edifice in question. This is while bearing in mind that the goal of the ‘defamation’ in most cases [in this context] would be to apprise the public opinion and put pressure on the administration to take action on corruption, punish those responsible, and put an end to violations.”

The facts

On November 14, 2014, Al-Akhbar ran a report titled “AUB Leaks: Will allegations of corruption at AUB go to US courts?” The report carried an analysis of some of the classified correspondence related to oversight over AUB’s finances.

The reader had perhaps expected AUB’s administration to spring into action upon reading the report and previous coverage in Al-Akhbar or other newspapers and TV networks, and to work hard to verify the violations alluded to in the report and the exhibits published with it. The reader had perhaps expected AUB to hold to account those responsible for corruption and wastage, to preserve the reputation of the university, its achievements, and the future of its students, especially in light of AUB’s major status in Lebanon and the region.

Unfortunately, the reaction of AUB’s administration went in a completely unexpected direction. AUB’s administration did not even seek to save face, and proceeded to try to cover up corruption and wastage in various ways, even though they are now known to all. AUB’s administration disregarded all serious calls for reform, focusing instead on blaming Al-Akhbar, as though it is the latter that was covering up fabricated patients and exaggerated bills to receive undue public funds; paying bribes; breaching social security regulations; evading taxes and social security contributions; supplying expired children's formula; manipulating reports; concealing evidence; disbursing funds to non-allocated channels, and putting pressure on audit firms (Bluemark Holding) as mentioned in the correspondence published.

In truth, this is not the first time AUB has sought to gag voices using all means at its disposal. In 2012, AUB won an injunction preventing [Lebanese TV channel] MTV from airing an interview with former AUB trustee Nabil Shartouni, and a similar injunction against The Daily Star, preventing it from reporting on allegations of corruption at the university (also according to the leaked correspondence).

On November 19, 2014, AUB secured an injunction forcing Al-Akhbar to remove the article on the ‘AUB Leaks’ and Hussein Mahdi to delete all corresponding material from his Facebook account. But the judge’s ruling completely ignored the goals that had prompted Al-Akhbar to publish the report and the exhibits in the first place. By doing so, the judge endorsed implicitly, without any scrutiny on his part, the claims of the plaintiff that Al-Akhbar was staging a ruthless campaign to slander AUB.

This was evident from the following:

First, the court refused to grant Al-Akhbar a reasonable amount of time to present its comments, despite the fact that there are more than 20 exhibits falling in more than 1,000 pages that need to be examined. By doing so, the court was saying that the content of the documents has no bearing on its rulings, as though the only criterion was AUB’s insistence on the confidential nature of the correspondence published.

Second, the ruling was issued in a record short period of time. If anything, this indicates clearly that the ruling neglected to investigate the content of the documents published with the report, bearing in mind that they are authentic by the acknowledgement of AUB itself, and thus should be the basis and rationale of the summons. These documents must not be withheld from the public without being examined first, and their implications assessed.

The court must balance between the need to preserve the confidentiality of correspondence on the one hand, and the journalists’ duty to expose corruption and financial wastage to the public opinion on the other. This cannot be refuted by claiming that the ruling was urgent, since the publication of the report in the newspaper and online had already happened days earlier. Furthermore, this material can be republished through social media in a way that cannot be censored. Consequently, it would have been more worthwhile for the court to verify the exhibits and establish whether they are worth keeping secret to preserve the interests of AUB’s administration, or whether they deserve to be published for the sake of the public interest.

Third, the court deemed that exceptional public interest is irrelevant to the legal action it was considering, without defining public interest, the conditions of its presence, or explaining the reasons by which the court reached this conclusion. This is while bearing in mind that the exhibits are directly linked to corruption and financial wastage at the highest levels at AUB.

Furthermore, they are authentic documents that have not been manipulated or abridged, linked to bribes, violations, and threats to patient health, as well as to fabrication of reports, using expired or spoilt material, and massive financial wastage. They were published, “as is,” with the intention of upholding the public opinion’s right to access the full truth and make its own judgments.

In addition, the summons raises an important issue regarding the right of Al-Akhbar or any other party to expose fraud and corruption in fulfillment of the public interest and punishing the press committed to exposing corruption and forcing it to ignore evidence, proof, and documents in its possession to appease the stronger party (AUB’s administration in this case), in a manner that could harm the future of its current and prospective students.

If we do not deem all this to be exceptional public interest, then how should we define public interest? On the other hand, we must acknowledge that the ruling being appealed had indeed recognized that the existence of an exceptional public interest would justify sacrificing the confidentiality of private correspondence. This is very important, because it reinforces the journalists’ right and duty to expose confidential correspondence if this serves the public interest.

As concerns the law:

A – The proven good faith of the appellant (Al-Akhbar), having committed itself to presenting the facts without personal motives:

It is established that Al-Akhbar is committed to its role in exposing violations and corruption, and has no personal motives that would undermine the credibility of the published report. Furthermore, it is established that the appellant has probable cause to believe the acts attributed to a number of people in charge of the university’s administration are accurate, especially since the authenticity of what has been published was not at any time disputed or questioned by AUB’s administration.

B – The presence of a social interest justifying the sacrifice of other concerns:

We must note in this regard the fundamental role of the press in the public space in general, in terms of conveying ideas and information to the citizens, and fostering discussions regarding public issues and providing the citizens with enough facts to exercise their role in monitoring public and private institutions, especially in light of the near-total absence of oversight and accountability. The matter becomes even more urgent when it touches on a public issue, as the issue at hand has become one of public interest with major social, economic, and educational implications as well as implications related to public health and safety, the future of thousands of students, and the future of the university itself.

Here, journalists have a responsibility to the public and have a duty to disclose information in their possession to defend the interests of the people, where issues like corruption and wastage at AUB’s medical and educational institutions are extremely relevant. This is while bearing in mind that the defamation is commensurate with the acts committed by the summoned party (AUB’s administration), in that publishing correspondence pointing to corruption at the university at the highest levels is commensurate with the acts committed, as these constitute criminal offenses in the manner elaborated in the documents enclosed with the appeal, threatening the history and future of the university and thousands of students and patients, and education and healthcare in Lebanon in general.

(Al-Akhbar)

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

Fraud at AUB has two heads. One which you have addressed in your article. However the other - scientific fraud - is far more damaging. Some AUB faculty are engaged in outright scientific fraud which is more formally known as plagiarism.

Below is an example of a detailed analysis of one of the plagiarism cases.

http://www.4shared.com/office/Ia2VFNlPba/Plagiarism_ElFadel_2005.html

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