This is a rant about the Lebanese bureaucracy. A foreign freelance journalist must get a letter of permission from the government to work here. To get the letter, one must show them a letter from at least one of the media organisations you’ll be working for.
Lucky for me, I had TWO such letters from two different media organizations – one in my email inbox and one in print. So, I printed out the electronic letter and showed them both to the guy at the ministry. No good. The one from my email had no signature on it. Why would it? It was an attachment in an email, and most places accept the from field in lieu of the signature. Not the Lebanese government though. For no reason whatsoever, he didn’t care about the other letter which did have a signature on it.
So, I asked the respective media company to fax the ministry a signed copy of the letter. Their fax machine was broken, but they kindly scanned a signed copy and emailed it to me. I forwarded the signed letter to the email address the ministry provided, which by the way is a hotmail address. I asked the guy in person if he got it and he said he doesn’t accept emails. Right.
So, I went back out, printed the damned letter, and oh shit, it’s 2 p.m. So, I better run because that’s when they close. Although the guy did tell me his assistant would arrive at 2:30 and help me. I missed the guy. His assistant finally arrived and told me to come back the next day. He didn’t look especially busy, but he couldn’t help me, he said. I had to see the guy. I protested. They guy told me the assistant would help.
The assistant reluctantly picks up the phone and calls somebody. The guy, I presume. When he hung up, he said he would give me the letter I needed. Then, he asked me for two passport-sized photos. Why the hell didn’t the guy tell me I needed this when I asked him what documentation I needed?
Back out I went, returned with the photos and got what I needed. Of course, nobody tells you if there are instances when that government letter is useless in this country especially when dealing with other levels of the government.
Today, I needed to get the army’s permission to enter a Palestinian refugee camp. As you may know, Lebanese authorities have no right of access inside the Palestinian camps according to the 1969 Cairo Agreement between the PLO and the Lebanese army. So, the army mans checkpoints at the camps’ entrances to monitor who goes in and out. Camp residents complain about being stopped and checked for their permission documentation every time they exit the camp and want to return home. Meanwhile it has been widely reported that wanted terrorists from various sectarian groups, some linked to Al-Qaeda, have managed to find a home in these camps away from the hands of arresting authorities.
Back to the point. I needed the army’s permission to get in. One soldier told me to go inside the office a few metres inside the barricades. I went in and showed a man in plainclothes the letter I painstakingly obtained from the ministry. He looked at it, said it was a “beautiful” letter, according to my translator, but it was no good. I needed yet another letter from a different ministry (defence). Also, if I was going to take pictures, I should hand over all my pictures to them on a CD. WTF?!
When I went back out, I told the soldier I needed to get a letter from the defence ministry. He said, “Oh yea, I knew that!” So, why didn’t he say so before he sent me to the office? He thought he would let me try to get in without it, he said. Just in case the officer inside decided to be nice. My translator didn’t want to go back in to see if a small bribe would get me in.
Also, the army gave me incorrect directions to the defence ministry. It’s actually not in Beirut like they said. And of course, they also close at 2.
Not to worry. I got my story. Can’t go inside the camp? Fine, I’ll get people on the inside to come meet me outside. But I would’ve liked to get some colour and visuals for my story.
p.s: I modified the 2nd para to say I had not one, but TWO letters.