A lab technician went to the office of a public official to renew her work contract with a municipal laboratory in northern Lebanon. Several days after submitting her request, the official’s secretary invited her to come to his office. Hoping to finally receive his signature on her contract renewal, the young woman arrived at the office only to find that he wanted to get her alone behind closed doors, where he allegedly proceeded to make verbal and physical sexual advances on her.
She fled the scene and tried to see if she could get her contract renewed through another government department, which only referred her back to the same official. Having no other alternative, the young woman went back to the official’s office in January 2014, but this time she was prepared with a hidden camera to capture his behavior on video.
In the mountains of Chouf, residents of Brih and neighboring villages were displaced during the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war. Their lands were subsequently occupied by other families and, rather than evacuating the lands and returning them to their original owners, the Ministry of Displaced Persons in Lebanon ran a program to offer compensation to the displaced.
But in 2014, although other villages had been paid, the former people of Brih still had not received their compensation. When they submitted a complaint to the Ministry, it claimed that the payment had been issued. But with residents presenting evidence that they had never received compensation, the question arose: where had the funds gone?
These are the types of cases that Lebanese citizens report to the Lebanese Advocacy and Legal Advice Center (LALAC), an initiative launched by the Lebanese Transparency Association (LTA) as part of its program with CIPE to combat corruption in Lebanon. Through LALAC, citizens can report corruption by calling the LALAC hotline, writing a letter or e-mail, or visiting one of three centers in person. LALAC provides clients with legal advice on the process of vindicating their rights (short of providing representation in court) and tracks the progress of their cases.
LALAC addresses a pressing need in Lebanese society. Lebanon ranks 127 out of 177 countries on Transparency International’s (TI’s) Corruption Perceptions Index (LTA is a chapter of TI.) A 2013 CIPE-supported survey conducted by LTA, which measured Lebanese business people’s perceptions of corruption, found that 80 percent of respondents believed corruption had increased over the past two years.
The more notable corruption scandals of recent years included a Minister of Parliament (MP)’s brother flooding the Lebanese market with huge quantities of counterfeit medicine and illegal pharmaceutical products and the arrest of five men who purposefully sold customers expired food. Sixty-five percent of the LTA survey respondents revealed that they had faced a situation where they had to pay bribes to facilitate a government-related procedure. Only 9 percent believed the government was effective in fighting corruption. In the absence of an effective government response to rampant corruption, civil society initiatives like LALAC become all the more important.
The first step in fighting corruption is informing citizens of their rights and empowering them to exercise those rights. During the course of CIPE’s project with LTA, LALAC opened two new centers in Bekaa and Nabatieh, under the supervision of their central office in Beirut, and received 340 phone calls on its hotline, 208 of which were directly related to cases of corruption.
A majority of the citizens who visited the centers or called the hotline heard about LALAC through its public awareness raising campaign, launched in December 2013 on United Nations International Anti-Corruption Day. As part of that CIPE-supported campaign, citizens from all parts of the country received text messages encouraging them to report corruption.
If they didn’t receive a text, then they saw LALAC announcements on TV, in newspapers and magazines, or on billboards as they drove down the road. When citizens do step forward and report corruption, a lawyer from the LALAC office advises them on how to pursue their case through existing complaint mechanisms or whether to seek legal representation.
The LALAC legal team also provides the critical service of reaching out directly to the relevant public institutions to follow up closely on the progress of clients’ cases. For example, the people of Brih had already submitted a written complaint to the Ministry of Displaced Persons and met directly with the Minister, to no avail, before they contacted LALAC. When LALAC received their case, the legal team contacted the head of department in the Ministry to pursue the case and within hours, the Minister herself called the hotline to speak with LALAC’s Legal Advisor. Based on the conversation, LALAC was able to advise the people of Brih on how to proceed with their claim through the Central Inspection Authority and the National Audit Bureau. Two weeks after the discussion, the people of Brih had reached an agreement with the Ministry and held a celebratory event that was covered by national media.
The next step in fighting corruption requires going beyond the vindication of citizens’ rights in individual cases of corruption to advancing broader reforms in Lebanese society. The LALAC team uses the information and trends it gleans from individual cases, along with the survey data, to draw conclusions about corruption on a national scale and advocate for governance reforms that will increase accountability and transparency in policymaking.
In the case of the young woman who was denied the renewal of her work contract because she refused the public official’s alleged sexual advances, it took her two months to overcome her fear of losing her opportunity for employment before she decided to contact LALAC to discuss her case and publish her hidden camera video online. Although the official ultimately resigned from his position, he has also filed a lawsuit against the young woman, claiming that she fabricated the allegations against him. Complaints received by LALAC such as this one highlight the urgent need for the protection of whistleblowers from retaliation in the workplace.
It is for this reason that LALAC also recently launched an advocacy campaign to encourage the passage of a Whistleblower Protection law currently pending before Parliament. If passed, the Whistleblower Protection law will secure confidentiality and protect the employment rights and personal safety of whistleblowers in the public and private sectors. It will also include specific mechanisms for compensation and assistance for whistleblowers. Through the internet and social media, radio and television, newspapers and magazines, billboards and LED screens, LALAC is putting this issue back on the front burner and encouraging citizens and parliamentarians to push for the law’s passage.
While Lebanon may still have a long way to go before citizens can report abuse of power without fear of reprisal and public funds are fully and properly accounted for, LALAC initiatives empower citizens today—individually and collectively—to raise their voice in a collective “No!” to corruption.
Peako Jenkins is a Program Assistant for the Middle East & North Africa at CIPE.
CIPE’s program with LTA is funded by a grant from the United States Department of State, Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.
MEPI is a unique program designed to engage directly with and invest in the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). MEPI works to create vibrant partnerships with citizens to foster the development of pluralistic, participatory, and prosperous societies throughout the MENA region. To do this, MEPI partners with local, regional and international non-governmental organizations, the private sector, academic institutions, and governments. More information about MEPI can be found at: www.mepi.state.gov.