x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Customs assault on journalists strikes fear in the Fourth Estate

Lebanese customs officers attacked and arrested three reporters who were investigating corruption at the highest level of the department. The most worrying aspect of this incident is the way in which it has fallen off the front pages.

“They refused,” Lebanon’s caretaker finance minister Mohammad Safadi told the Lebanese media last week. “Leave them, I said. It is my responsibility [but they still] refused.”

Mr Safadi was talking about the recent unsavoury, not to mention very public incident in which customs officers beat up and arrested three reporters from Al Jadeed Television who were investigating corruption at the very highest level of the customs department.

The journalists had resorted to using a megaphone to demand an interview with the acting director of customs Shafiq Merhi, when Brigadier General Ibrahim Shamseddine ordered his men to beat and detain them. The sight of public servants behaving like boot boys as the police and army stood by was yet another indicator that what is left of the fabric of the Lebanese public sector is threadbare at best.

The next day, Lebanese customs issued a statement claiming the journalists shouted “slogans that insult the customs administration and its director general … and this is not the appropriate manner to request an interview”, as if this somehow justified the attack.

The next day there were claims that the Al Jadeed team had an anti-March 14 bloc agenda, and before we knew it, the principle that public servants should conduct themselves with something approaching decorum became lost in the eddying waters of Lebanese sectarianism.

Mr Safadi, an urbane businessman from Tripoli, was clearly rattled by the incident. A department he controls had gone rogue and told its boss to take a hike. What did you expect, he argued, when there was no government? It was a pathetic excuse, but we live in pathetic times.

In a perfect world, Mr Safadi should have done the decent thing and resigned, and in other countries his desk would have been cleared by teatime. But resignation is a very un-Lebanese concept.

Traditionally, public office has less to do with public service and more with personal finance. Not all ministers are corrupt, but it is an open secret that key portfolios are more “lucrative” than others and are seen not just as a political reward but an opportunity to make some real money. The Lebanese simply accept that a man whose role in life is to serve the nation should also be rich. He would be an idiot otherwise.

I doubt Mr Safadi needs the money. He is a respected multimillionaire in his own right, but he functions within a system in which accountability is an alien concept and accepting responsibility is a sign of weakness.

Lebanon’s famous culture of corruption has been, and still is, a barrier to attracting foreign investment. Companies considering availing themselves of Lebanon’s educated and multilingual workforce no doubt think long and hard when calculating the cost of doing business in our tiny land.

Not only do they have to factor in the chronic security situation and the Third World infrastructure, but there will also be the inevitable and tiresome facilitation fees that more than anything lubricate Lebanon’s sinister machinery.

One only has to look at the uproar over the Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun’s eagerness that the energy ministry, run by his son-in-law Gebran Basil secures the oil and gas exploration contracts before the formation of any new government and the ministry is awarded to another party. Mr Bassil’s political enemies claim he stands to rake in millions from the contracts, but the truth is that they are all at it.

But arguably the most worrying aspect of the whole customs incident is the way in which it has fallen off the front pages with the exception of a few dedicated blogs, such as Habib Battah’s “Beirut Report”, and of course Al Jadeed, which is not letting this drop and is promising to name more names this week. The rest of the press has either forgotten what it does or decided this is too much of a hot potato.

And we wonder why Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, prefers to do business with the Israelis instead of the land of his parents.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut