How hard is it to get information from the Lebanese government? The answer may surprise you. I discuss my adventure with the finance ministry in my recent column for Bold Magazine.
Lebanon By The Numbers
By Habib Battah
It seemed a straightforward question: How much money has the Lebanese government received in Syria-related aid donations? But when I asked the Prime Minister’s advisor at his lavish office in the Grand Serail, he lifted his hands. “It’s a very small number. It’s nothing. I don’t have it,” he said, looking at me as if the matter was inconsequential.
At the time, the Lebanese government had been on a world tour to lobby for funds to cope with the world’s largest refugee crisis, arguing that it had received a pittance in aid money. I was writing a piece about it and thought, in order to make that argument effectively, wouldn’t it be helpful to specify exactly how much has been given, to underscore the wide gap between that tiny figure and the amount that was actually needed?
I emailed the advisor twice after our interview and he could still not produce an answer, referring me instead to the Finance Ministry. So days later, I put in a call there – well, several calls – until I was told I would need to make an information request. Naturally, the bureaucrat told me requests could only be made in writing, and by this she meant typed and delivered in person, not signed and scanned, not emailed, not faxed, not any means convenient or rational. So half an hour of walking later – thank God I live in Beirut – I arrived at the Finance Ministry with a typed up piece of paper stating my simple one line question, who I was writing for and why I wanted to know.
I approached the office of the “responsible person,” a middle-aged man, who was flanked by two similarly aged women. He smiled wryly at my request. “You were living abroad?” I affirmed, but asked how that was relevant to obtaining the information. “If you can, go back there. Lebanon is like Angola,” he exclaimed with a chuckle. I smiled and asked one of his female co-workers if they had dealt with journalists often. “You are the first one I have seen here,” she said soberly.
Later I visited the office of the bureaucrat I had dealt with over the phone to see if I could hurry matters along as I was on a deadline. She told me the request would take “some time” as it, like all press inquiries, had to be approved by the minister. But surprisingly she said I could have a look at the figure in the meantime, though I could not quote her. She pulled out a spartan spreadsheet of what seemed to be accounts receivable, with only a few entries. She did a few quick calculations, and figured total donations to the state amounted to around $2.8 million, an astoundingly tiny sum, which would amount to less than 0.1 percent of Lebanon’s total aid appeal. Why was this figure so hard to obtain?
I called and emailed the same bureaucrat several times over the following two weeks, but my request was never answered. Eventually I was forced to use the unofficial figure, labeling it as a “government estimate.” A couple of weeks after the piece was published -nearly a month after my initial request was made – I received a phone call from a ministry employee. The figure I had requested was ready, she said nonchalantly. It was close to $2 million or $1million less than the previous figure. But who was counting.
Clearly accuracy or transparency were not a priority among the myriad of officials I had dealt with. This meant I would miss my deadline and that the public would not have access to relevant national data illustrating the daunting challenge the country and its institutions faced.
Yet I was also surprised by the lack of reporters that had requested documents from the Ministry of Finance (perhaps the most important of all ministries), according to the staff I met. The bureaucracy may be stifling but negotiating it is part of what journalism is there for. Who else is going to have time to pace government hallways, make phone calls relentlessly, and ultimately put pressure on authorities?
Sadly, many reporters and activists often assume that if the information is not forthcoming it simply does not exist or, worse still, is not worth pursuing. It is almost as if we are conditioned not to ask, not to bother, to accept evasive answers, sigh and call it a day, so to speak.
But what many may not realize is that non-answers are also a type of answer; that they are also responses worthy of being recorded and disseminated to the public. I have written entire articles based on non-answers, from pollution on Lebanese beaches, to a lack of budget or website for Municipality of Beirut, to top internet officials who refused to discuss their roles in one of the world’s worst connections. In many of these cases, the desire to remain evasive produced flustered, if not comical answers that cast even more doubt on the competency of those in power. “No comment” should send up a red flag for any dedicated journalist: keep digging.
Increasingly, concerned citizens are not waiting for journalists to do their jobs. Every year, new activist groups are born, composed of both young and older individuals willing to sacrifice time and effort to dig through archives, take screenshots from Google Earth, conceal hidden cameras, pore through archaic legal codes to document illegal seizure of public properties, racism at beach resorts, grounds for civil marriage, among many other issues. One group is even now looking into resurrecting a 1920s era law that allows citizens to launch complaints with Parliament, though it has rarely ever been used before.
The internet and social media have helped create momentum like never before, even in a place that seems as feudalistic or complacent as Lebanon’s public sector. As a result, today it is easier for anyone to get involved and to pressure both news outlets and officials to work harder to come up with the answers that citizens deserve.
This column originally appeared in the July issue of Bold Magazine.