Wrong number, wrong office

Procuring information from Lebanon’s government

by Sami Halabi

Instead, journalists are subjected to a labyrinth of information requests and bureaucratic red tape in order to get information, should it exist, or acquire interviews with government officials who, in theory, should be accountable to the public. Most just rely on anecdotal evidence or the opinions of “experts.”

“I don’t even bother trying to get information from government officials in Lebanon because they just send you from one place to another, tell you to get a paper from here and from there, and in the end you end up with nothing,” says Paul Cochrane, an Irish journalist who has been based in Lebanon for the past seven years. “It’s a bit like Waiting for Godot.”

The lack of transparency within Lebanon’s government institutions does not only apply to foreign journalists; local journalists fair just as badly. “The process is just way too long,” said Nada Nohra, a Beirut-based Lebanese journalist. Nohra described a recent attempt to acquire information from the Director General of Antiquities, the governmental body under the Ministry of Culture tasked with protecting Lebanon’s cultural heritage. In practice, the body has little authority and cannot physically stop the demolition of cultural sites now being torn down across Lebanon to make room for the country’s fledging real estate market. “When I put in a request to interview the head of the office it took them a week to reply,” said Nohra. “When they finally did, they rejected my request ‘because the issue was too complicated for them to discuss’.”

Later that day, Nohra called Lebanon’s Ministry of Culture to ask how long a previous post-war minister had been in office. “I called and they kept transferring me around,” she said. “Nobody could tell me how long he had been the minister!”

The only marked achievement in terms of government transparency over the past several years has been the introduction of websites for Lebanon’s 24 ministries. Though not all of them have websites (such as the Ministry of the Displaced), and some of those that do don’t function, such as the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.

With all this in mind, last month I embarked on a journey to gather information about Lebanon’s ‘legal prostitution’. Lebanon currently maintains a policy of effectively legal prostitution of foreigners whereby women are employed as “artists” in what the Lebanese affectionately call “super nightclubs” but are de facto prostitutes with little rights or government protection.  In an example of unintentional irony, the artists are subject to periodic medical examinations by General Security but are not legally permitted to have sex with the club patrons. If they are diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease they are deported. Many of these women have their passports confiscated on arrival, are not permitted to leave the clubs during “working hours,” and are usually locked inside their clubs during “non-working hours.”

I began my research by calling the Ministry of Labor who duly informed me that the ministry does not have a media relations office nor do they keep records on Lebanon’s “artists.” Under the Lebanese law, these “artists” are not protected by the country’s labor code but instead by a separate legal framework set by the General Security office, the government body that regulates issues relating to visas and residency status of foreigners. These women’s “rights and obligations” are spelled out in a booklet issued by General Security entitled “Female workers in nightclubs, modeling and non-medical massage – rights and obligations.”

Naturally my next phone call was to the General Security offices.  General Security does indeed have a media relations office but they were not present when I called or when I eventually knocked on their door during working hours. I called the operator back who then informed me that, even if I did reach media relations, to acquire any information I would have to appear in person to fill out an application at the general secretariat’s office.

Not to be put off, I rang up the Ministry of Justice’s offices to find out how many cases have been filed by “artists” for rape, violence or theft. After having called a several times to no avail, an old coarse male voice finally answered and informed me that the ministry did not have a media relations office either. When I asked him whom I could speak to in order to get this information I was put on hold  and then transferred to another office, where a woman informed me that I had reached the wrong office again. I called the old man back and told him he had given me the wrong office. He transferred me to yet another office where another woman answered informed me that the ministry couldn’t help me; but I could speak to a woman named Huda at the Palace of Justice (Lebanon’s public courts). “Does she have a number?” I inquired. “No you will have to go see her,” she said. “What is her office number?” I asked. “First floor,” the woman said and hung up.

Fortunately for me, both the Palace of Justice and General Security’s offices are across the street from each other.  Since there is no official information desk at General Security’s offices, I used the time honored method of greeting a few loitering solder’s with a “God bless you” followed by a request for the location of the general secretariat’s office which I eventually found on the first floor of the building.

When I arrived and informed the soldier behind the desk of my intentions, he told me I was in the wrong place and had to go to the section that handled the affairs of the “artists.”

After blessing a few more soldiers I found the “artists” bloc tucked away in a hallway to the side on the ground floor of the building. Upon entering the section, I asked who I needed to speak to and was led into a room labeled the “questioning room.”  The room consisted of two desks and several filing cabinets that lined the walls. The soldier again asked me to wait. After around 10 minutes, I got up and walked to the entrance of the room where I saw five women– ostensibly of eastern European decent– enter the opposite room from a side door and march single file behind an Arab man holding a wad of papers into a room across the hall. As I watched the procession, along with every other male in the bloc, the soldier who initially had asked me to wait motioned me into another room at the end of the hall.

The office of the head of the artists section, lined on both sides with leather couches and one large desk at the far end of the room, was filled with soldiers. I made my way up to the officer and explained my situation. He refused to speak to me unless I filed a request to the general director through the general secretariat’s office. When I told him they had just sent me to him, he shook his head and told me to explain my situation to them once again.

After much conversation and a few confused facial expressions, the soldier at the general secretariat’s office agreed that I had to file an official request in writing, which included having it stamped to become a legal document.  After I did this he sent me to another office that handled the general director’s mail. The soldier then asked me for the publication’s press ID. When I explained to him that Lebanon’s Syndicate of Journalists would not give the publication a press ID because, as one editor-in-chief explained to me, “if they do, they will have to give it to everyone and they don’t want Hezbollah having them.” I sent the request by standard mail to the director of General Security. About a week later I received a call from a lieutenant at the director’s office who asked for my name and occupation and hung up. I didn’t hear back from their office until 3 weeks later, long after the article was published, when the general director of general security called– only to decline to provide the number of women that have filed cases for rape or mistreatment. He refused to offer anyone for an interview or give me a copy of the booklet given to the workers, agreeing only to give me the number of “artists” in the country: 1,070.

I then wandered over the public courts to find Huda. After many  “God bless you’s” I finally found the door that said “press.”  But when I tried the handle it was locked. I knocked. No answer. I tried the door a few more times then began to walk away when I saw the door swing open. There stood Huda.

Huda was indeed in charge of press relations but insisted that the issue of foreign female workers was not in her department. She gave me the name of another man named Joe and pointed to a door across the hallway.

When I entered Joe’s office and presented my request he laughed and told me that I was in the wrong building and had to go to the general prosecutor’s office and talk to a man named Tarek. Tarek, a short stubby man with a mustache said he couldn’t give me the information because it was “secret.” When I insisted, he told me to take it up with the head of his department, a local magistrate named Joseph.

I entered the magistrate’s office and told the soldier, who doubled as his secretary, what I was there for. He asked me to take a seat. While I was waiting, an old friend of mine who happened to be a lawyer entered and sat next to me. When I explained my situation to him, he asked me to step outside the office with him. “You have to feed [bribe] these guys to get information,” he said. He then walked into another office and introduced me to a man named Ali. Ali asked me to sit on a bench across the hall. I asked my friend if I should pay now or later. He said, later “he’ll tell you the price. If you agree then he will tell you how to do it.” I waited for another 10 minutes until Ali came out of the last door. He looked at me, raised his eyebrows and made a sliding motion with his hand. The deal was off.

Having failed to acquire my information through alternative methods, I made my way back to the magistrate’s office. I sat down and waited for my turn. A deafening bell went off and the soldier/secretary jumped up and entered the judge’s office. When he came back he asked me to enter. The judge introduced himself as Joseph. When I asked him about the figures he shook his head. “We don’t even categorize the lawsuits, so we can’t know,” he said. “It’s not like I even have a computer and can just click a button.”

I could sense an underlying annoyance in Joseph’s voice as he basically told me that he wanted to help me but he couldn’t. Indeed there was no computer on his desk, much less anything else for that matter.

Joseph is not alone. Many Lebanese seek a better and more efficient government. That desire however does not translate into votes come time for elections because there are “no issue politics in Lebanon,” as one MP told me in the run-up to the recent elections. For a journalist in Lebanon to learn about the inner workings of his government or to procure information—of a general or sensitive nature—often requires that the individual or publication develop close ties with government functionaries. Because of the politicized and sectarian agenda of most Lebanese publications, and the patronage system behind them, there is little hope for young or independent journalists to get responses to inquiries without compromising their objectivity. They must make sure that both the their publication’s agenda and their own articles adhere to the interests of the public figures they are using to acquire “public information,” in order not to risk being ostracized by any given public office for the rest of their careers.

Without pressure from the public, Lebanon’s institutions, let alone its media, have little incentive to reform or restructure in order to serve their people. It seems certain that without these reforms, its journalists will continue to ask many questions that will remain unanswered, such as the plight the of the country’s “artists.” In particular when it comes to information that establishment officials can agree should be withheld—such as abuse of migrant workers– even seasoned navigators of Lebanon’s patron system will have a difficult time getting straight answers.

First published in Menassat on August 11, 2009

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