BEIRUT — A payment for Lebanon's state-owned telecoms operator, Ogero, has become the subject of a tug-of-war between the Ministries of Finance and Telecoms. The two institutions are accusing each other of defaulting on the funds, while the risk of a total shutdown of Ogero continues to loom over the country due to a lack of funds to buy fuel, maintain exchanges and pay employees.
According to a source at the Ministry of Finance, the payment was made on May 2, but the Minister of Telecommunications didn't take the necessary steps with the Banque du Liban (BDL) to release the funds. For his part, caretaker Telecoms Minister Johnny Corm denied responsibility, citing legal complications arising from a budget law passed in 2019.
The problem of Ogero's funds was raised at the end of May, when the organization's general manager stated that 30 stations were at risk of shutting down in the next few days due to a lack of diesel to power the infrastructure. Since then, many transmission stations have ceased to operate.
A simple phone call
According to the source at the Ministry of Finance, releasing the payment only requires a phone call to the BDL and "it's up to the Minister of Telecoms to justify why he still hasn't done it."
"On our side, the procedure was completed at the beginning of the month," the source added.
But for Johnny Corm, the situation is more complicated than that. It is linked to the abolition of a position within the Ministry which came as a result of the 2019 budget; that of the "senior accountant." The latter was responsible for signing the necessary procedures to release funds so that they could be sent to the ministry's account. But in the absence of such an official, it is unclear who is in charge of this function.
Corm says he asked, at the Council of Ministers meeting on February 27, 2023, "to return to the pre-2019 situation," by re-appointing a senior accountant "in order to resolve this matter."
"However, I was informed that this would be unconstitutional, because a law can only be overturned by another law, not by a ministerial decision," he added. "Meanwhile, since November 2022, we still haven't received the funds allocated to Ogero's maintenance. So we're making do with what we've got and incurring debts to keep us going," lamented Corm. He refers in particular to a maintenance contract with Ogero signed in December 2022, the funds for which have still not been released. "I am awaiting a response from the Department of Legislation and Consultations within the Ministry of Justice, due to arrive tomorrow [Tuesday], to determine the legality of reinstating the function of principal accountant, which would allow this payment to be finalized," the outgoing minister said. "Orally, this department has confirmed to me that this would be legal," he added.
Beware of 'fake news'
Contacted by L'Orient-Le Jour, a source at Ogero declined to comment on the controversy between the two ministries.
Referring to information circulating on social media concerning the risk of a total shutdown of Ogero's services if payment is not released by Monday, the source described the rumors as "fake news."
"Today [Monday] has been business as usual at Ogero, with normal activity," she said. "An outage at one of our exchanges shared with mobile operators Touch and Alfa led to a temporary interruption of internet services for a few hours. Such breakdowns are unfortunately common given that we operate more than 300 exchanges," she continued, denouncing "ill-intentioned individuals who launched unfounded rumors that [Ogero's] services would be completely interrupted by the end of the day, thus creating an atmosphere of panic and confusion."
However, the source did not rule out a possible blackout if funds were not released by the authorities to supply the exchanges.