Recently, a media platform in Tripoli called Hamsat Lebanon delivered a live broadcast of one of its “correspondents” barging into a primary healthcare center in Rahma Hospital, Tripoli. He was accompanied by individuals who, it turned out, included journalists belonging to the Press Editors’ Syndicate. In one of the center’s rooms, Marsa – an association for sexual and reproductive health – provides health and educational services as part of programs run by the Ministry of Public Health and the World Health Organization, including the national program for supporting people living with HIV. The “correspondent” explained on air that the purpose of the intrusion was to investigate rumors that the center provides support for LGBTQ people. The group rifled through the contents of the premises in an apparent search for evidence, showing no regard for the privacy of the center’s work or clients, and interrogated the center’s director about their items, posters, and brochures.
Viewers of the video cannot but notice the confusion, demagoguery, and derision with which the center’s work, contents, and services are treated. The correspondent needed only make one phone call to the parties concerned to determine what the center does and that it is subordinate to the Ministry of Public Health, rather than barging into a government-affiliated medical facility, raising suspicions about its function live on air, and interrogating the director. Despite the surrealism of the situation, director of the center Dr. Soumaya Harrouk insisted on responding to the intruders’ snide questions and carefully explaining the center’s objectives and services.
The video demonstrates that the recent campaign of incitement has caused some people to see the concepts of “sex education” and “reproductive health” as synonymous with “supporting gay people” and therefore legitimate grounds to barge into a medical facility, threaten the doctors, violate the facility’s privacy, and rifle through its contents without permission from the hospital. Although the “journalists” involved said in phone calls with the Legal Agenda that the administration gave them permission to enter, an employee of the office of Rahma Hospital’s director reported otherwise.
The Details of the Incident
In a call with the Legal Agenda, editor-in-chief of the website MTN news and Press Editors’ Syndicate member Mahmud al-Nablusi said that at 4:00 PM on Saturday, September 16, the anonymous owner of the “Dollar 1,500” groups on WhatsApp sent a message warning that the center concerned supports LGBTQ people. According to al-Nablusi, these groups, which contain more than 17,000 followers in Tripoli and its periphery, have strong influence over public opinion there. The news caused a stir in the city, he said. As the owner of a “media platform”, he went to the center to “verify” the matter. He said that he waited for the administration’s permission before entering the center with two colleagues: Hamid Masri, and a Hamsat Lebanon correspondent. Hamsat Lebanon began broadcasting live to its followers to document the entry and “transmit the truth as is”, as the correspondent justified in a phone call with the Legal Agenda.
Al-Nablusi and the Hamsat Lebanon correspondent denied applying the principle of verifying information before going to the center and filming, arguing that live transmission is itself the truth. They took questions and comments from viewers live during the broadcast.
The pair also denied that those who participated in the intrusion “rifled” through the contents of the premises, even though the broadcast shows one of them opening cabinets and removing items inside, such as condoms.
The participants in the broadcast ask inane questions. For example, they ask the doctor about the purpose of the condoms that one of them was holding toward the camera as though it were “evidence”. Al-Nablusi asks Harrouk about a poster on the wall reading “al-‘ada is normal”, accusing the center of encouraging masturbation [al-‘ada al-siriyya]. Although she responds that the intended meaning is the menstrual cycle [al-‘ada al-shahriyya], he continues raising suspicion about the poster.
In her responses to the intruders, Harrouk emphasizes that the center receives all people without any discrimination and irrespective of their sexual orientations. This convinces one of the intruders, who likens the center to a supermarket that anyone can enter, but not al-Nablusi, who concludes that what they found in the center (which can be found in all centers and pharmacies) “is not part of the fabric of Tripoli and does not represent it. Inside we found condoms; what is this travesty?” He continues by reading from one of the brochures – “Condoms: Whenever you want to have sex with a new partner” – and asking, “Are such things said in Tripoli, the city of knowledge and scholars? Something is not right. There are many question marks”.
Suspicious Official Silence About an Attack on a Health Center
The on-air intrusion could have grave effects on the beneficiaries of the services provided by the center and similar centers, such as pregnant women and people living with HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases. Such people may feel like their privacy is in danger and therefore refrain from visiting these centers. The same goes for the workers, who may feel that they are in danger and people are suspicious of their work. Despite the gravity of the incident, it prompted no stance or statement from the official parties concerned, except for the National AIDS Program. The program’s director Dr. Mostafa El Nakib stressed that Marsa and its Tripoli clinic closely cooperate with the program to limit the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV by raising awareness, distributing condoms, and conducting the necessary tests, including the rapid HIV test. Following the Legal Agenda’s calls, the Ministry of Public Health delegated the President of its Department of Hospitals and Clinics Hicham Fawaz to comment on the matter. He described the incident as “superficial” and said that “social media blows events out of proportion”.
For his part, President of the Order of Physicians in Tripoli Yusuf Shalakh said in a phone call with the Legal Agenda that the matter is “delicate” and needs “prudence”. He ended the call by saying, “Enough, pretend you never called me,” preferring to ignore the incident even though the intruders endangered medical staff and interrogated the director of a healthcare center.
This silence raises the possibility of some kind of collusion with the intruders, especially given the reluctance to proceed with legal and accountability procedures. Hospital director Ezzat Agha has not filed a complaint against the trespassers. In his response to the Legal Agenda’s text messages, he appeared powerless: “In this country, do you think that anyone can get anywhere via the law?”
Statements Reintroducing the Functions of the Associations Concerned
Following the incident and in response to the accusations that Marsa supports LGBTQ people, the association issued a statement reintroducing itself and its objectives. The statement read:
“Marsa is an association concerned with sexual and reproductive health that was established in Lebanon in 2011. Its objectives include protecting public health by providing medical tests and educational information in cooperation with the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health and following the World Health Organization’s recommendations”.
The statement added that the association believes that “every person has a right to access all health services”, “every healthcare worker has a duty to provide services to everyone with complete neutrality and without discrimination”, and “these medical and educational services are essential to limit the spread of sexually transmitted infections”. It noted that “the services that the association provides are available in many hospitals and medical institutions in Lebanon” and that “attacking health and hospital institutions that provide sexual and reproductive health services impedes people’s access to medical care”.
Likewise, Rahma Hospital issued a statement on the day of the incident not condemning it but once again introducing itself and its objectives and services, as well as defending itself against the accusations of promoting homosexuality: “[The hospital] absolutely does not provide any services to support or encourage homosexuality; that news is fabricated and untrue”. The statement added that the hospital’s administration considers “health to be a fundamental human right” and is “committed to preserving the culture of our city – the city of knowledge and scholars – and its values”.
From another angle, in a phone call with the Legal Agenda, President of the Syndicate of Private Hospitals Suleiman Haroun condemned the incident as a “systematic attack”, adding that “even if the attack targeted gay people, as they say, hospitals and medical staff have a duty to treat everyone, and it is not their job to determine who is and isn’t gay. A person cannot be denied his right to medical care because of his sexual orientation”. He continued, “We don’t differentiate between one patient and another, and what a patient does in his private life isn’t our business”. He added that they are “awaiting the outcome of the police procedures”, although the hospital’s director Agha confirmed in one of his messages to the Legal Agenda that no complaint or legal action has been filed against anyone.