'Let them be mad': Lebanese anti-corruption hero brushes off Hezbollah hate campaign

Smear campaign launched against journalist Riad Kobaissi because he won a US award

Riad Kobaissi receives his anti-corruption award from US ambassador Dorothy Shea. Courtesy: Riad Kobaissi / Facebook
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An investigative journalist remains defiant after Hezbollah supporters launched a hate campaign against him on social media.

Riad Kobaissi won a US award last week for exposing corruption in Lebanon.

In response, Hezbollah supporters launched an online smear campaign against Kobaissi accusing him of being a "foreign agent".

The Iran-backed party is a powerful player in Lebanon and one of its operatives has been convicted for the assassination of a former prime minister.

Kobaissi responded to his critics by posting a photograph of himself receiving the award from the US ambassador to Beirut.

“They’re mad? Let them be mad. Perhaps they should drink some herbal tea to calm their nerves,” he said, petting his dog in his Beirut home.

Kobaissi, 40, has become the face of the fight against corruption in a country where justice is often politicised. Members of Lebanon’s powerful elite have tried to disparage his work.

لاحظت انو عم تستعملوا صور فوتوشوب لاستلامي الجائزة المتصلة بمكافحة الفساد ، فقلت بزودكم بصورة حقيقية من حفل استلامي للجائزة في السفارة الاميركية 😃. #بردا_وسلاما

Posted by Riad Kobaissi on Friday, December 10, 2021

For years, Hezbollah and its supporters have launched co-ordinated media campaigns against Shiite personalities who do not support the group, such as Kobaissi. Now, supporters of the group are accusing him of being a foreign agent for accepting a US prize.

“So what if I got a prize from the US? Is America an enemy state?” said Kobaissi.

“Why should I care about what supporters of Lebanon’s ruling mafias think of me? Today the dollar is trading at 27,000 Lebanese pounds,” he said, pointing to the record low exchange rate of the local currency.

The Lebanese pound has lost more than 90 per cent of its value to the dollar since the onset of the crisis.

“How can they criticise me after what they’ve done to this country?”

He is the only Arab personality to have won the US Treasury’s prestigious Anti-corruption Champion award this year. The prize is part of President Joe Biden’s efforts to confront corruption and promote democracy around the world.

The US highlighted Kobaissi’s work uncovering corruption at the Beirut port years before the 2020 explosion as well as “gross corruption in the public sector.”

The international community and Lebanese activists have blamed the country’s economic free fall and the explosion at the port that killed hundreds of people last August on systemic corruption and neglect.

Many Lebanese see Kobaissi as a hero challenging a ruling elite that has run the country's economy into the ground.

He has uncovered corruption scandals ranging from high officials and politicians evading customs fees to multi-million-dollar offshore companies linked to Lebanon’s powerful central bank governor.

He hosts a weekly investigative show on Lebanese broadcaster Al Jadeed (New TV) that exposes the fortunes of the country's elite.

“Officials panic when they see me,” he said with a hint of pride.

He describes himself as a “controversial” journalist because he exposes the country's corrupt elite, often calling ministers and high officials live on TV to confront them about evidence of corruption.

During a live report exposing rampant corruption at the Beirut port in 2019, he dared Chief of Customs Badri Daher to confront him, taunting him with a catchphrase from the hit American series Breaking Bad.

“Badri, I am the one who knocks,” he said, eyes locked on the camera as he pounded his fist on the desk.

“You want to defend yourself, call.”

Mr Daher is now imprisoned as a suspect in the Beirut blast case.

In the two years since Lebanon’s economic meltdown, Kobaissi has become a figurehead of the country's 2019 mass anti-government protest movement, and the target of political attacks.

“I feel like a soldier on the frontline,” he said' “But I chose this job knowing the dangers.”

His investigative unit is composed of between five and seven journalists and camera crew, but he says many in Lebanon look to them and to their colleagues for the truth. Lebanese authorities failed to hold any high officials responsible two years into Lebanon's economic meltdown and one year after the Beirut port blast.

“Many Lebanese now look to us journalists for answers, not to the Lebanese state,” Kobaissi said.

“We are ruled by a talentless mafia.”

Updated: December 15, 2021, 6:24 AM