How far can Lebanon’s anti-corruption initiatives go?

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A protestor in Beirut demonstrating against the endemic corruption holds a sign in Arabic saying "A person steals a loaf of bread and they go to jail, a person steals a country and they become a leader.' (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Chloé Benoist

Published Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Lebanon has witnessed the emergence of several new anti-corruption initiatives in recent months, raising awareness about the magnitude of the issue in the country. But these campaigns, while aiming for laudable goals, do not seem to be fully prepared for the tasks they chose to take on.

According to a 2013 report by Transparency International, 71 percent of Lebanese believe corruption is a “serious problem” in the country. Moreover, 85 percent of respondents said they felt the level of corruption had increased in the past two years.

But few are willing to risk the adverse consequences of reporting instances of corruption in Lebanon.

A TV crew from channel Al-Jadeed was beaten and arrested in November 2013 after protesting government interference in an attempted report on corruption among customs officials at Beirut's International Airport.

In January, Al-Akhbar journalist Mohamed Nazzal was fined six million Lebanese lira ($3,990) for writing an article exposing a corrupt judge involved with a drug-dealing network. Despite the fact that Judge Randa Yaqzan was found guilty, Nazzal was convicted of contempt, slander and defamation.

The dire consequences facing those who attempt to reveal corruption has not stopped organizations like Sakker al-Dekkeneh and the Lebanese Transparency Association (LTA) from attempting to change a system where bribes have become the norm.

The Sakker al-Dekkeneh initiative, which began last May, has been raising awareness about corruption through some imaginative stunts, including a store selling mock ID documents, paperwork and diplomas to highlight the absurdity of rampant bribery in Lebanon.

The movement also records reports of corruption on its website and via smartphone application WhatsApp, and has produced a short video to humorously expose the problem.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese Advocacy and Legal Advice Center (LALAC), an initiative launched by the LTA, has been pushing forward a campaign since June to inform the public about a bill which would protect individuals who report cases of private or public sector corruption.

A parliamentary subcommittee, headed by MP Ghassan Moukheiber, has been reviewing a draft for a whistleblower protection bill since December 2013.

The LALAC campaign is expected to last through July, with billboards and televised advertisements already released to spread the word. LALAC told Al-Akhbar some as-of-yet unspecified events would also take place in July.

These high-profile and undoubtedly costly efforts by LALAC and Sakker al-Dekkeneh to bring the issue of corruption to the foreground of public debate are nevertheless raising questions about their effectiveness and transparency, characteristics that both organizations are pushing for in public administration.

A blundering start?

When Al-Akhbar spoke to LALAC employees about their whistleblower protection campaign in further detail in late June, it emerged that details of the bill for which the organization has rolled out extensive publicity were still unknown to them.

Dany Haddad, an advocacy coordinator for LTA and one of the leading members of the whistleblower protection campaign, told Al-Akhbar that he was not aware whether the bill’s phrasing had been finalized and that LALAC hadn’t finished meeting with relevant political, administrative and civil society actors before the launch of its advertising spots.

A LALAC communications officer later contacted Al-Akhbar to explain that the publicity campaign was the first step in getting citizens involved in the drafting of the law.

"The next part of our campaign is to have citizens call MPs to say what they want to include in the law," she said, adding that LALAC would then "tell citizens what a good whistleblower law would include" and encourage them to contact Parliament to share these requirements.

Another issue, emerging from discussions with Haddad was the lack of any existing legislation regarding corruption in Lebanon.

“There is no anti-corruption law in Lebanon, there is no anti-corruption commission in Lebanon. The legal background of corruption doesn’t exist in Lebanon,” he said.

When asked about which entity would ensure whistleblower protection in the absence of a pre-existing anti-corruption mechanisms, Haddad said existing regulatory bodies would take on the responsibility.

“Until now there is no mechanism, but once the whistleblower protection bill is passed, there will be a mechanism because citizens will be referring to regulatory authorities. In addition to their role as regulatory bodies, they would play the role of anti-corruption commissions,” he said.

No country reviewed by the website Blueprint for Free Speech has passed a specific whistleblower protection law without there being pre-existing anti-corruption legislation.

Haddad added that while the LTA hadn’t spoken with these regulatory bodies “yet,” but claimed that “they are familiar about it because they are meeting with the MPs working on the draft law.”

It remained unclear in this scenario who would ensure whistleblower protection in the private sector. A look into various Lebanese ministries’ websites showed that most did not have easily accessible online forms to report misdeeds, if at all.

Meanwhile, Sakker al-Dekkeneh Vice-President Carole al-Sharabati told Al-Akhbar that while the organization had reached a certain level of visibility in its short time of operation, many took its tongue-in-cheek tone a little too literally.

“There is the first level of people who contact us on WhatsApp to buy stuff, people who take it at the first degree,” she said. “People will come to the shop, [including] a driver who asked for a driver’s license for madame. He even called her to confirm that yes, the shop is here.”

Sharabati said these misunderstandings “show you how relevant this campaign is,” but the seemingly non-negligible number of individuals oblivious to the true intent of the group could undermine its impact.

The effectiveness of Sakker al-Dekkeneh and LALAC’s efforts, particularly in their attempts to document corruption, have also raised doubts.

Both LALAC and Sakker al-Dekkeneh have outlets for individuals to testify about bribes. According to LALAC, it received more than 300 calls reporting instances of corruption in the past seven months, with less than a quarter of callers deciding to formally file a report, an action encouraged by LALAC. According to LALAC data, the majority of reports they received were complaints against the municipalities, water and electricity corruption, as well as against the private sector.

On the other hand, Sakker al-Dekkeneh boasts of having received more than 700 reports since its inception in May, many concerning small bribes to the Internal Security Forces (ISF), but also larger instances of corruption from the Ministry of Finance related to real estate paperwork.

However, Sakker al-Dekkeneh does not use these testimonies to build legal cases.

“So far we don’t have any plan to take any legal action in light of any report,” Sharabati said, adding that the information given by individuals would be used in a qualitative and quantitative analysis of corruption.

For independent presidential candidate Nadine Moussa, who established the Lebanese Association to Prevent Corruption in 2008, the intentions behind Sakker al-Dekkeneh were commendable, but somewhat redundant with pre-existing anti-corruption efforts.

“It’s a good initiative, but it will take a very long time if they only have limited resources to collect data,” she told Al-Akhbar. Moussa said that there is existing research about Lebanese corruption which could have been used instead of trying to come up with data from scratch.

Where does the money come from?

Another perhaps more troubling aspect of Sakker al-Dekkeneh is the decision by the organization to not reveal the names of its funders until May 2015.

“We’re trying now to not let this be the focus, be on who’s funding us, because there are conflicts between different sides and things like this can be used [against us], so we’re trying to let this be on the back-burner,” Sharabati said.

“Time will come when the accounting will be published. After a full year has passed it will be time for us to publish it. We want to focus now on building things up, we don’t want to go in these little debates.”

Sharabati nonetheless revealed that Sakker al-Dekkeneh’s major funders included Western governments and Lebanese businesses.

“Who wants to fund [initiatives like ours]? One is the West, who wants to work towards stability, democracy and development; and businesses who are fed up of being part of this system. So this is where we’ve been getting the money from.”

Sharabati’s openness about the type of donors involved with Sakker al-Dekkeneh, without revealing their precise identity strikes as a strange lack of transparency for an organization dedicated to fight corruption. This secrecy, even if only for a set period of time, raises questions about the possible controversy behind these funders, and how they have influenced the content of Sakker al-Dekkeneh’s work.

Meanwhile, a look into the LTA’s list of funders revealed that the organization’s main financial backers are the European Union, the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation, the Center for International Private Enterprise and the US-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI).

With the exception of the EU, all other funders are US-based organizations attempting to push Western-friendly and capitalist policies in the Middle East.

A 2010 US State Department documentmade public by Middle East Briefing notably revealed that MEPI was then part of “an elaborate structure of State Department programs aimed at directly building ‘civil society’ organizations, particularly non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to alter the internal politics of the targeted countries in favor of US foreign policy and national security objectives.”

While LALAC’s communication officer categorically rejected the notion that its donors influence the content of its programs, the involvement of unapologetically pro-Western entities raises the legitimate question of their interests in funding the Lebanese fight against corruption - especially in light of the US’ own repression of whistleblowers.

LALAC’s openness about the source of its funding, no matter how controversial, stands in contrast with Sakker al-Dekkeneh’s decision to withhold this information from the public, despite their donors coming from apparently similar backgrounds.

Public action against corruption is still a relatively new social movement in Lebanon. Moussa recalled how “corruption was a taboo word” when she began her work on the issue in 2008. “We’ve succeeded in that respect,” she said.

Moussa said she believed the time had come to move past awareness-raising.

“We have being doing outreach for years, but now we need to move on from outreach to mobilization,” she said. “Everyone knows about corruption, everyone talks about it, but we still haven’t found a way to mobilize people into seeing it as a personal problem. There is an essential [social] shift to carry out.”

LALAC and Sakker al-Dekkeneh’s efforts have helped to bring corruption back into the spotlight, but it remains to be seen whether these organizations, and ones who will follow, can carry out clear, actionable plans to effectively help eradicate this scourge from Lebanese society.

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