The duck that lays golden eggs: Graft journalism in Lebanon

What does press freedom mean when poorly-paid journalists are routinely offered hundreds of dollars to put a positive spin on a story? MENASSAT's Ghassan Sauod explores the phenomenon of graft among Lebanese journalists – something he has experienced first-hand.
Bribes for Lebanese reporters, who receive notoriously low salaries, can take various forms, from cash to housing loans. R.R.

BEIRUT, September 23, 2008 (MENASSAT) – I had just finished the interview and was about to leave my host's house – a man of considerable weight in the Lebanese political scene. It was my first meeting with him and I was exhausted from the interview.

As I made my way to the door, he suddenly went through his pockets and pulled out a wad of several hundreds of dollars, shoving them to me in a closed fist.

He smiled and said, "Take care of us with what you'll write."

The man did all this without flinching or looking away. He didn't loosen the grip of his heavy fist as I tried to keep the bribe money away.

Before I realized what I was supposed to say, my host, feigning kindness, said, "I'm like your father. Your article is like a gift, and this money is a gift from me to you, so you can buy yourself a gift."

That was the beginning, right there in that Beirut house.

'A salute from the rich – not a bribe'

I was an inexperienced writer at that point in my career, and I was incensed. I complained to my editor-in-chief about the humiliation, with a fist full of dollars in my hand.

I turned my article into a harsh critique about my host's political history, burning whatever bridges I might have set up by writing a positive spin on the man.

Bribes come in many forms.

They can be cash gifts, or they can come in the form of a bank loan for an apartment extending over 25 yearly payments – a period of time during which the journalist who has accepted such a gift is expected to remain silent and not anger his kind sponsor.

There are also indirect bribes, such as when the politician or businessman being interviewed inquires as to what hotel you are staying at or what your favorite restaurant is. Or perhaps you were eying an item from a certain store and the next thing you know it's on your hotel bed with the bill all settled.

Even journalism students still in school can suddenly find that their tuition has been paid for the semester?

These are real stories in Lebanon.

More commonplace are the offers by wealthy patrons who see a potentially pesky reporter as a future media consultant for his business – perhaps for the sole purpose of making sure that the businessman's or politician's views are well represented in the press.

One testimonial given to MENASSAT recounted how a businessman offered a reporter a job at a regional publication he owned. He was given a monthly salary of $2,000 for writing just one article a month – double the salary at his existing newspaper, where he was required to work 10 hours a day.

Offers like this are hard to turn down, and journalists interviewed for this piece who admitted to taking money from sources tended to justify themselves.

"A salute from the rich, not a bribe," was how one reporter described it.

Journalism with a price tag

"It's not a big deal because politicians close to the press world know the conditions of the journalists, and understand their financial misery, and they try to help with these donations," another journalist said.

Some journalists play the game so eagerly that they have politicians or businessmen complaining about their "price tag."

One businessman lamented that a certain journalist practically "lives off of me."

Journalist can be patient too, waiting for a politician to achieve his goal and reach an important enough position before they cash in and receive their "treats" or "thank you tokens" for services rendered.

As for the "cheap" politicians, they run the risk of being mercilessly attacked by some "checkbook journalists" until they pay their "dues."

All of this makes the work of honest journalists so much harder.

Several reporters told MENASSAT that politicians who have offered them a bribe, only to see it refused, often hold a grudge and consider the journalist in question with distrust from thereon after.

As one reporter said, refusing the bribe means, "The politician does not own the reporter."

What's worse is that some news editors see nothing wrong with journalists taking bribes.

In one testimonial, a journalist told MENASSAT about an interview with a powerful politician that ended with him refusing to take a bribe.

Returning from the interview, he found his editor-in-chief waiting for him in his office. But it was not to praise him for staying honest; instead, this reporter was told that adhering to professionalism and journalistic ethics does not mean refusing gifts. "Especially if the donor is a friend of the paper," this journalist told MENASSAT, repeating the words of the newspaper editor.

Please drop your bribes in the box

Another reporter told MENASSAT that an editor-in-chief of a Lebanese newspaper had promised to introduce her to a prominent politician. But the offer was not unconditional; she was expected to share the spoils.

"At least one third of what will be in the envelopes I would be receiving after every interview with the politician was to go to the editor-in-chief for introducing me," she said.

Another journalist told MENASSAT about two reporters working at his newspaper who were fighting over an interview with a politician known for greasing the wheels.

Recounting the story, the reporter said, "One of the two reporters told the editor-in-chief he couldn't make the end of the month if he didn't publish an interview with the politician in question."

The practice is so widespread that one editor-in-chief thought nothing of announcing to his staff that he would install a box where journalists were expected to drop at least half of all bribes received, "in order to ensure the continuity of the newspaper."

Part of the problem is that most Lebanese media, on both sides of the political aisle, rely heavily on funding from politicians or businessmen with political agendas for their survival.

In the end, it is critical investigation and criticism of the political and business sphere that suffer.

(The names of individual reporters have been withheld at their request.)