The goose that lays golden eggs burns its owners

Two weeks ago Lebanon entered a new episode of internal conflict. This time the headlines concern the “Barouk station.” The details include illegal Internet suppliers, stealing public money and communications with Israel.
Lebanon Barouk internet

 A transmission tower that belonged to a private TV station in the Barouk mountains had equipment intended for receiving Internet packages owned by the Internet supplier HOT SPOT, and also provided crucial governmental administrations with Internet service, such as the presidential palace’s website and the military intelligence department. Israeli-made equipment was found at the station, as well as a satellite directed southward, said to receive illegal Internet from Israel. If true, Israel was able to spy on Internet traffic of the sites using the service.

For two weeks now, the country is living through statements and counter-statements regarding the  now dismantled Internet “repeater station” (a station that receives bandwidth and re-transmits it) in Barouk, which turned out to be receiving illegally “imported” Internet waves from countries abroad, using Israeli-made equipment, or at least equipment with Israeli components. Technically, Israel could have been able to spy on anyone using the Internet provided by this  station.

No one denies the pervasiveness of illegally-supplied Internet in Lebanon. And everyone also publicly admits  that the Lebanese government does not do enough on two fronts: first, by failing to provide sufficient and reliable Internet access for the entire local market, which leaves private companies in search for alternative, even illegal ways to sustain demand. Some argue this situation is intentional, since the illegal Internet provider market generates massive profits for companies often backed by influential parties in the sectarian and political structure of the country’s ruling class. This case may be no exception.

The second issue is governmental leniency in cracking down on these violations, to the point of complicity, even after the cases are exposed.

What’s new in this case of illegal Internet, is the possibility that Israel was able to spy on Internet traffic, something the justice minister denies while the communications minister confirms it. The fight begins, knowing that they belong to opposing political parties.

The facts mentioned below are derived from what the media has been saying. Clearly the main arena of this intensifying debate concerns the security sensitivity regarding anything related to serving Israeli interests in Lebanon, and how it can affect those behind what is now called "the Barouk station" in the press.

Despite reports, the judiciary has been reluctant to act, or has been forced to be reluctant. If some of what is circulated in the media is true, big heads are going to roll. The dossier has been recently transferred to the army’s military intelligence branch for investigations specifically into allegations of “communicating with Israel.”

On April 4th, the communication ministry and the Lebanese army were “dismantling  a transmitting station mounted on a pole belonging  to the private TV station MTV” owned by the March 14th member Gabriel Murr, “when they noticed 2 strange things: first, the satellites were directed southwards, from a point providing a direct wireless view to Israel through a microwave device. Secondly, the station included foreign-made highly developed equipment unfamiliar in the Lebanese market.”

Ceragon and the southward dishes: find Israel

On April 11th, 2009, the case was sent to the Financial General Attorney, but it has not yet moved forward, despite the phenomenal illegal profits made by the operating company, which “deprived the state of $375,000 every month,” and made net profits of $150,000, according to Al-Akhbar newspaper.

According to the media coverage of this story, the owners of the operating company “are known and influential in Lebanese political circles.” Granted, its services were cheaper, since the company paid no taxes, which weighed heavily in getting contracts to provide Internet to some public administrations, as well as “dozens of houses owned by high ranking officers and politicians.” The name of speaker of the parliament’s son was dropped, Abdullah Berri, who completely denied his involvement, and is now suing the newspaper that reported he is a partner in one of the companies related to the Barouk station-- a fire-ball that everyone is now dodging that will burn who ever catches it last.

As for whether the owners of the station were aware themselves of the connection between their Internet suppliers and Israel, they argue they have been paying their bills through Cyprus in return for bought bandwidths. But sources in the Ministry of Communications have said to the press that those who installed the satellites and directed them southwards, towards Israel, and not westward towards Cyprus, must have know what they were doing.

Hasan Olleiq in Al-Akhbar wrote that a source close to the case confirmed that “a retired Israeli officer from a  security agency, who holds a Cypriot passport, arrived in Lebanon in November 2006 and oversaw the installation of this equipment.” Olleiq detailed the names of the board members of Ceragon, the manufacturer of the found equipment, and the names of the Israeli company’s managers who served in the Israeli army: Zohar Zisapel, a board member, was head of electronic research at the Israeli Ministry of Defense between 1982 and 1999; Avshalom Patir, also a board member, is a retired major-general from the Israeli army; Eyal Assa, operations and sales manager, worked 6 years in an elite unit specialized in research and development in Israel’s army; and Eran Westman, vice-executive manager, served 7 years in the research and development department in the Israeli defense ministry.”

The goose laying golden eggs

Some journalists went as far as to say that the Internet sector in Lebanon is controlled by mafias. One wonders upon learning that there are only 15 legal Internet providers in Lebanon, what the statuses of countless companies are all over the country. Rasha Abu Zaki wrote that 50 percent of the Internet market is illegally provided through “mechanisms that make acquiring illegal Internet capacities from abroad easier and more simple than acquiring it through legal ways.”

  The support of influential political powers for illegal private interests is an old story in Lebanon. Everyone benefits one way or another, and the public is now used to learning about such stories when politicians’ interests collide, and they expose each other. This time may be no different. Perhaps it’s enough to know that children of former ministers and former presidents were granted licenses to start cellular phones companies when the sector first arrived in the country. Conflict of interest always gives away the partners.

The owner of one of the “accused” companies considered his company’s market share rise the reason his competitors were eying the company, so the case was brought up. But we also read about protection of this or that company by this or that political alliance. But what is noteworthy, is the conflict over the communications ministry itself.

Who does the ministry belong to?

The Hariri Future movement has been insisting recently that current Communications Minister Gibran Basil, (an FPM member of the  opposition), constitutes the main obstacle to the formation of a new government, by saying he lost in the elections and thus should not be made minister—a claim without any legal foundation. But the story is somewhere else: before Basil took over, the communications ministry was headed by Marwan Hamade, a close ally of Hariri. In his day, talk of corruption and favoring private companies’ interests was rampant, in particular in light of the fact that telecommunications costs in Lebanon were the second highest internationally.

When Basil took over, he tightened regulations for the two main cell phone operators, and enforced regulations regarding quality of service, cost and obligations towards the state, which harvested more income for the state. This shadowed the performance of previous ministers. Basil himself still complains about the influence of the Director General of the Ministry, Abdel Min’im Mahfouz, who represents the Hariri dynasty’s interests in the communications sector, and is now considered to follow acting-Prime Minister Siniora and the Hariri-owned Ogero, among others.

The conflict, and ensuing debate is in essence about who controls the telecommunications ministry, and whose interests it serves and protects. It is also worth keeping in mind the crucial role it plays when it comes to tapping land-line and cellular phones, and where the revenues of this highly profitable sector go. Some statistics say telecommunications provide the largest portion of state revenue right now. What is absent from all this debate is how to best serve people’s interests, and provide them with reliable and affordable services.

    The telecommunications ministry issued a statement last week confirming that “confiscated equipment from the Barouk station was put in service on November 8th, 2006, and installed on a TV broadcasting pole. The serial numbers and commercial brands were erased, in an attempt to hide their origin.” What the statement did not explicitly say in, but what is implicit in the mentioned dates, is that Marwan Hmade was Minister of Communications at the time in 2006.