Lebanon's Daily Star, USAID, and Solidere

There's been an interesting scandal brewing in the last few days about Lebanon Examiner, a section of the Beirut Daily Star sponsored by USAID to carry out investigative journalism. A piece that recently came out about Solidere -- surely the first and foremost investigative business journalism story to do in Lebanon -- apparently pissed off the paper's USAID backers and their friends in government. Solidere, the Downtown Beirut real estate rehabilitation project, was THE post-civil war reconstruction initiative of the 1990s. It was an odd creature, partly government-backed and partly owned by the late Rafiq al-Hariri. Some of its shares also belonged to the inhabitants of Downtown Beirut, and it was traded on the Beirut stockmarket. It has always been controversial, for architectural/aesthetic reasons as well as for financial and political ones, especially considering the rather murky share splits and ways the company was managed. In other words, it is a perfect topic for an investigative newspaper story, and the one written a few days ago Lysandra Ohrstrom begins the scratch the surface of what may be a key aspect of 1990s Lebanese politics by focusing on a recent lawsuit:

On May 29, a committee of 500-dogged, disenfranchised former downtown property owners filed a suit at the Majlis al-Shura against a two-month old ministerial decree approving Solidere's decision to create an international branch in Dubai. The case is the latest in a long line of lawsuits against Solidere over the past 12 years that raises questions about the company's dubious legal foundations and its checkered past. Solidere's operations range from the "immoral to the unconstitutional," according to its most vocal critics, and all were perpetrated under the cover of the Lebanese state in the name of "national interest."

Like its predecessors, the current case may never receive a ruling, but the Downtown Rights Holders Committee is optimistic that with the government led by staunch-Solidere ally Premier Fouad Siniora in danger of collapse, and the possibility of a power sharing agreement increasingly imminent, they may be able to hem in Solidere's "unlawful expansion" - 37 percent of which was financed with local capital - so company profits are used to complete outstanding rehabilitation commitments in BCD, and not to finance speculative ventures in countries outside the state's control.

"We don't like this move because [Solidere] is still supposed to be a public purpose company whose main mission is development, whose mission is to serve downtown property owners by finishing project quickly and distributing [dividends] to us so we can buy back our property in downtown. We don't want Solidere to go do other projects when they are barely 25 percent done in Lebanon." explained Constantine Karam, who filed the petition on behalf of the rights holders committee.
That sounds straightforward enough. But successive leaks to the Angry Arab allege that USAID and the Siniora government are angry about the story, and trying to reign in the Daily Star:

My highly reliable (and well-placed) sources in Beirut are telling me that there were very strong reactions against the article by the Sanyurah government and its allies in the US embassy. The strongest reaction came from the USAID which funds the investigative page through an "accountability and transparency" grant. Don't you like how the US defines "accountability and transparency"? The person who secured the USAID grant wrote that "the political agenda of the donors is not to undermine the fuoad Siniora government". Long live transparency, accountability, and democracy. The person* complained for the second time that the examiner has become a "hizbollah rag"-the first was after Jim Quilty wrote a story on the reconstruction of bint jbeil, the person said donors were "bored" with the reconstruction topic. Long live the donors. Apparently the donors received phone calls from march 14 people all day yesterday, accusing the staff of the Daily Star of having timed the release of the story to the elections to prop up the opposition. The staff of the paper were ordered to print a full rebuttle. They "ordered" them to cover the following topics in the following three issues:
1) Municipal governmence at the Interior Ministry--they included four sources for reporters to interview who surely would allow for a "balanced" article. 2) The Finance Ministry's ease of doing business reforms. 3) The five year industrial program drafted by the Ministry of Industry under Pierre Gemayel. 4) Sami Hadad's leadership at the economy ministry. One editor from the daily star is resigning and telling them to find someone else who does not mind being subject to editorial oversight from the US government.
So not only do they want a rebuttal but also to place their own story with positive spin for the government... More allegations of US embassy micro-management of the Daily Star here.

Now, this post is not meant to be about taking sides in the Lebanese political deadlock. It's not like al-Manar is a bastion of independent journalism, or that many Lebanese papers don't slavishly follow the party line of whoever is paying this month. Even well-regarded papers such as as-Safir and al-Akhbar in Lebanon are frequently accused of being bought one way or another, and there sure seems to be a lot of esteem for the Saudi royal family in pretty much every Arab newspaper. However, there is something particularly cynical about using a grant to develop investigative journalism and micro-manage a paper's coverage. At least Rafiq Hariri would write the cheques and send them personally (or simply send them without even a quid-pro-quo, hoping to curry favor. It often worked). This particularly the case because a USAID program to boost serious investigative journalism in the Arab world is a great idea considering the general lack of such type of stories and one that should be carried out seriously. As someone who has worked in small Arab world publications, I find it particularly offensive and even frankly dangerous. The Daily Star's reporting has never been known for its frank coverage of Lebanese politics, particularly during the civil war. (Its editorial pages, edited by the quite forthrightly pro-March 14 Michael Young, are a different thing and indeed the best thing about the paper even if you might not agree with Young.) But political caution is a different thing than being told what to do by a foreign embassy's staffers. I hope the Daily Star does not rebut the story and keeps on doing this kind of work.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.