North Africa, West Asia

Lebanon's foreign minister under fire: a comment on Gebran Bassil's real estate holdings

In order to promote accountability, the Lebanese public and journalists have to abide by a code of conduct that respects the right to a fair trial and the right to a defence. 

Halim Shebaya
11 November 2015

Demotix/Dominic Dudley. All rights reserved.Gebran Bassil, Lebanon's Foreign Minister and newly appointed leader of General Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, has 22 million USD’s worth in real estate, purchased during the last ten years. This is according to a report aired on Monday 2 November 2015, during a TV program on LBCI that deals with corruption issues.

Bassil responded during a press conference on Tuesday 3 November denying the veracity of these claims and threatening to pursue legal routes. He claimed the estates in question formed part of an inheritance. On Monday 9 November, a new report claimed the lands were purchased and not inherited. At the time of writing, Bassil had not responded to the latter report.

As things stand, we have Joe Maalouf's report that has confirmed Bassil's opponents' view that he is a corrupt politician. On the other hand, we have Bassil's press conference where he did not go into the details of the documents, but rather presented a defense of his own record and of his party's policies and integrity, thus convincing his supporters.

Scandals are a healthy occurrence in a healthy democracy. But it is imperative that everyone get similar treatment.

From the perspective of the spectator, it is difficult to judge, except based on preconceived notions or biases. And it is worth noting that in dealing with such reports, it would be a premature conclusion—and one that is only befitting for sensationalist reporting and headlines—to submit that Bassil stole 22 million USD, based solely on a ten-minute report on TV.

Without any doubt, investigative journalism is essential in a well-functioning democracy as it signifies the potential for uncovering scandals, corruption, abuse of power, and all forms of ills threatening a free and democratic society. And this note is not in defense of Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil with whom I disagree on some matters of foreign policy, treatment/discourse on refugees, and the absence of a rights discourse in his party's agenda.

I am strongly in favour of opening politicians' personal portfolios to the public. In fact, scandals are a healthy occurrence in a healthy democracy. But it is imperative that everyone get similar treatment to avoid claims of double standards applied to different parties.

One concern with the report on Gebran Bassil's alleged corruption and fortune (in the tens of millions, including other reports of his ownership of a private jet and houses in Europe) is the fact that Maalouf did not give him or a spokesperson the chance to reply but simply ended the report by asking the minister to clarify.

Had the 'scandal' been a leaked document from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it would have been satisfactory to simply expose the document as a 'scoop'. But the documents relate to private estates and they are then presented to a real estate expert and their estimated net worth is calculated.

One of my favourite moments while watching investigative reports is when the accused individual (the target of the report) is confronted with the damning evidence. Observing his/her body language, replies, tone of voice, and assessing his/her arguments as he/she is taken by surprise by the strength and clarity of the presented evidence against him/her is an opportunity for the random spectator to act as a member of a jury or even as a judge on the case in question.

Had Joe Maalouf done that, the report would have been stronger and would have given the spectator an opportunity to make an informed judgment. He does mention in the report that he would like to hear Bassil's answer to his allegations. However, in presenting a report to the public, he should have confronted—or at least attempted to confront—Bassil with the documents he presented, given that he had the time to consult with a real estate expert to determine their worth.

Let the courts decide who is a thief. And let the public encourage investigative journalism.

This would have been similar to the report on Telecommunications Minister Boutros Harb and the deal that may have cost the ministry and taxpayers 30 million USD. In the segment shown on Monday 9 November, the minister's advisor is contacted for a potential interview. 

My point is that in order to promote accountability, the Lebanese public and journalists have to abide by a code of conduct that respects the right to a fair trial, the right to a strong defence, and the right to reply to allegations of corruption or abuse of office, and most importantly, the right to the presumption of innocence.

Awaiting the legal route—if taken—to determine the veracity of the claims made about Bassil's wealth and illicit enrichment, one must guard against the use of terms such as "thief" or "stole" precisely in order to strengthen the rule of law in Lebanon.

Furthermore, accountability can start in the media—especially with investigative journalism reports—but is ultimately decided in the courts of law. If that is not feasible, then the discussion must be about alternate routes.

As things currently stand, activists are bringing forth complaints to the financial prosecutor on a number of cases and this is a healthy practice for our struggling democracy in favor of strengthening the role of the judiciary in fighting corruption. 

Let the courts decide who is a thief. And let the public encourage investigative journalism exposing corruption. But we should always remember that making an informed judgment on such cases should take a little longer time and effort than watching a ten-minute report on TV. 

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