Lebanon's Government Is Accused Of Swarming WhatsApp To Catch Protesters

Mar 9, 2020
Originally published on March 16, 2020 6:14 pm

In Lebanon, cyberspace is the new battle ground between protesters and the security services that have increased measures to curb dissent, intimidating and arresting government critics for online speech.

Since October, Lebanese citizens have gathered to protest around the country, uniting across party and sectarian lines against an entrenched political oligarchy that protesters say has made fortunes mostly from government funds at the expense of the country.

The massive outpouring was sparked by a proposed tax on calls made through Internet services such as WhatsApp. The government abandoned the tax after protesters paralyzed the country, forcing banks and schools to close. Now, the authorities use WhatsApp to identify protest leaders and arrest them, activists and lawyers say.

In the first months of civil disobedience, Lebanon's mainstream media outlets — largely owned by the state, political parties or politicians — downplayed the unrest, ignored it or suggested the protests were exploited by regional and international enemies.

Activists turned to social media platforms to get out their message. They organized and shared updates on WhatsApp, streamed protests live on Twitter and highlighted police abuse on Instagram. New podcasts documenting corruption also launched with the protest movement.

New cat-and-mouse game

Many Lebanese use WhatsApp, a Facebook-owned cellphone app that allows users to send each other encrypted text and voice messages as well as make calls for free, in a country where ordinary phone calls are expensive. Many demonstrators have used WhatsApp chat groups to criticize the government, call protesters to the streets and share videos of arrests and injuries from rubber bullets.

A woman films with her phone as Lebanese security forces detain an anti-government protester during clashes in a demonstration in Beirut in January.
Joseph Eid / AFP via Getty Images

The social media and WhatsApp activities also leave activists vulnerable to surveillance by the Internal Security Forces' Cybercrimes Bureau.

Mohamad Najem, executive director of the Social Media Exchange, a Beirut-based digital rights group, says there is a "different kind of cat-and-mouse" game. "Social media is being used as a tool to identify protesters and to know who they are and their networks and all that," he says.

Lebanon's print media, its newspapers and magazines, are protected by laws that are the envy of the Arab world, but comments posted to social media have little protection, says Najem.

"The law is bad, it's a lot of gray area. It really depends on the mood of the general prosecutor, what he's doing, what kind of whiskey he is drinking at night, who is talking to him," he says. "All these issues are really how the decisions processes are made in this country."

Caught "insulting" a bank on Facebook

Civil liberties and international human rights groups say Lebanon's powerful political and religious leaders also use the country's broad defamation laws to intimidate and stifle critics.

In December, the authorities in Beirut summoned filmmaker and activist Rabih El-Amine for criticizing the policies of a local bank on the Internet. He says officials questioned him for hours over 25 Facebook posts, which they said contained "insults."

"They asked me to delete them or edit them," says El-Amine. The officials also demanded he sign a pledge not to insult the bank again as a condition of his release. He complied.

You can go to prison for saying something on social media. - Aya Majzoub, researcher for Human Rights Watch

But later, he says, he was followed and challenged by an unknown man when he took part in a sit-in in front of the parliament building. "A guy approaches me and asks me if I am Rabih El-Amine, and I said yes. He attacked me and broke my nose," he says.

El-Amine has since fled to Europe, where NPR reached him via WhatsApp.

"You can go to prison for saying something on social media, particularly if you are saying something that was deemed to be defamatory or insulting to public officials, the army, the president, the army, the flag, by punishment of up to three years in prison," says Aya Majzoub, a Beirut-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.

"We know who you are"

The Cybercrimes Bureau took on more and more cases after mass protests erupted in 2015 over uncollected trash in Beirut. Between January 2015 and May 2019, the bureau opened 3,599 investigations relating to defamation, libel and slander, according to a Human Rights Watch report published last November. "That number was very concerning," says Majzoub, the report's author.

The measures to suppress critics have ramped up again as the latest protest movement persists and Lebanon's economic crisis worsens.

Lebanese authorities have adopted new tactics, including infiltrating WhatsApp chat groups to identify protest organizers and arrest them, say lawyers who are handling the cases.

"The government is using social media to track protesters and leaders. They send their 'guys' to contribute to the WhatsApp groups to see who is talking," says Khaled Merheb, a lawyer based in the Lebanese city of Tripoli and with an office in the capital Beirut.

They send their 'guys' to contribute to the WhatsApp groups to see who is talking. - Khaled Merheb, lawyer

One protest organizer describes to NPR how the infiltration happened to her. She doesn't want her named used because she fears arrest. She believes government agents joined the group anonymously to monitor who is saying what, and then sent rapid-fire, seemingly nonsensical images and messages to disrupt and disperse the group.

"It's a scare tactic to tell people, 'We know who you are and what you are doing and we will stop you,' " the protest organizer says.

She says the fear comes from an invasion of an encrypted message service that contains cellphone numbers and anti-government comments that can be used by the security police to identify protest leaders.

"They find who that person is and they go and arrest them on the basis that they were anti- the ruling power," she says.

Since January, when a new cabinet was named after Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his government resigned under pressure from protesters, the crackdown appears to have resumed. The Cybercrimes Bureau has summoned at least 60 activists for interrogation so far this year, according to lawyers working on the cases. The attorneys say the unit has been targeting protest leaders, arresting them at home rather than on the demonstration front lines.

Melhem Khalaf, a civil society member and a social activist who was elected in November to head the Beirut Bar Association.
Lama Al-Arian / NPR

The government do not publicly discuss the widening dragnet.

But a former official who was in charge of domestic security matters is now critical of the new government's approach.

"We have the names of every single person, at least the leaders, but we did not bring anybody in," former Interior Minister Raya El Hassan tells NPR. "But now, [the authorities] have taken a different tactic. They are bringing them in even without protesting."

El Hassan says the tactic comes from the new government backed by Hezbollah and its allies. The militant group, supported by Iran, is playing a more powerful role in Lebanese politics and that has raised concerns about the country's ability to address an impending economic collapse, she says.

Legal resistance

A committee of lawyers set up a hotline to help those detained, beaten by Lebanese security forces or threatened by police who demand cellphone passwords, says Merheb, who mobilizes lawyers in Tripoli to head to police stations after sweeping arrests.

"Never, ever open your phone; it's illegal, we can sue them," is his emphatic advice. He explains the latest tactic is a government trying to adapt, surprised and exhausted in the early days of the protests.

"I think the political system is a bit scared," Merheb says in a café in Tripoli. "At first, they tried to use force, the numbers of the protesters increased. I think they are doing their math."

He says he is a member of a group called "Lawyers of the Revolution," set up by the Tripoli Bar Association, that takes on cases pro-bono. They are part of a unique legal movement that is mounting a challenge to the political power in the country.

On Feb. 24,a blogger, a TV reporter and an activist were summoned by the criminal investigations department on accusations of "spreading fake news" about a local political party and "inciting sectarianism and racism."

Melhem Khalaf, head of the Beirut Bar Association, raced to the jail where they were held to mount a defense. He got them released within hours.

Khalaf, a social activist, was elected in November in a move widely claimed as a victory by protesters because it was the first time an independent candidate was named to lead the country's top law association without the backing of a political party.

He has assembled a squad of more than 700 volunteer lawyers who visit prisons across Lebanon and report abuses. He turns his office into a legal clinic one day a week.

"It is our mission," Khalaf says. "I think we have to give hope to our youth. I think we have to build through facts not in words," explaining an exceptional strategy in the country where leaders are accused of bending the law for their benefit.

"When you see all of these lawyers who came to the prisons, who came to the police stations," he says, it is meant to remind the powerful that protecting citizens' rights is paramount.

He huddles with everyone waiting in a long line at the legal clinic, often into the night, offering legal advice and assigning lawyers.

Times are tough as the Lebanese economy melts down and anger continues to drive protesters on to the streets — and online.

"I think the politicians and established political parties are finding it very hard to adjust to this new Lebanon," says Majzoub, "where they don't own the country."

Lama Al-Arian contributed reporting for this story in Beirut.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Lebanon, protesters and the security services are battling in cyberspace. Even before the coronavirus pushed people off the streets, the Internet was a key place for dissent. And the government has been intimidating critics on social media everywhere from WhatsApp to podcasts. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIANCE)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: As protests went on in recent months, mainstream media owned by powerful political families mostly ignored them. But activists streamed the unrest on social media, posted accounts of police abuse, launched new podcasts focused on government corruption.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMOS: Here guests dissect government failings as an economic crisis drives up prices and unemployment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIZAR HASSAN: Hello and welcome to the Lebanese politics podcast. My Nizar Hassan, joined, as usual, by Benjamin Red. And we have an amazing guest today, economist Joan Chaker.

AMOS: Tracking companies show that more than a majority of the population is on WhatsApp for Internet calls and encrypted chat groups. But all this online activity means activists are vulnerable to snooping, spying and surveillance by Lebanon's cybercrimes unit, launched a decade ago as the arm of the security services, says Mohammed Najem (ph), head of a digital rights group.

MOHAMMED NAJEM: There's different kind of cat and mouse game that's happening. Social media is being used as a tool to identify protesters and to know who they are and their networks and all that, so it is an issue.

AMOS: He says one issue is the law. The right to data privacy, protections for publishing online, are vague. And here's another cat and mouse game - targeted attacks on WhatsApp chat groups. Activists explain that government agents join the groups anonymously to monitor who is saying what.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE BEEPING)

AMOS: This is the sound when a chat group is infiltrated. Images and warnings and rapid-fire names, cellphone numbers and comments are all scooped up. It happened to one protest organizer who didn't want her name broadcast because she fears arrest.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's a scare tactic to tell people that we know who you are, and we will stop you anyway.

AMOS: Do some activists - are they frightened by this?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I don't want to speak for everyone, but I'll speak for myself. I was very scared. They got into my personal mobile phone.

AMOS: The security police have called in at least 60 people for questioning - according to lawyers dealing with these cases, activists summoned for their online comments.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They find who that person is and they go and arrest them on the basis that they were anti the ruling power.

AMOS: Aya Majzoub, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Beirut, says Lebanese authorities have long relied on vaguely worded defamation law to silence critics.

AYA MAJZOUB: So you can go to prison for saying something on social media - particularly if you are saying something that was deemed to be defamatory or insulting to public officials, the president, the army, the flag.

AMOS: Human Rights Watch documented more than 3,000 defamation investigations initiated by the cybercrimes unit from 2015 to 2019.

MAJZOUB: Three-thousand five-hundred and ninety-nine people were called in. That number was very, very, very concerning.

(CHEERING)

AMOS: Concerning to activists, too; last month - a protest after three were interrogated, accused of defamation. A committee of lawyers have set up a hotline to help. Khaled Merhad (ph) and other lawyers mobilized at police stations after sweeping arrests to advise protesters against turning over their passwords.

KHALED MERHAD: Never, ever open your phone. It's illegal. You can sue them.

AMOS: Are you busier than ever before because of this?

MERHAD: I'm from the Lawyers of the Revolution, and we are defending for free.

AMOS: This legal movement is led by Melhelm Khalif (ph), recently elected head of the Beirut Bar Association. His activism is unprecedented and included a legal clinic for people seeking advice.

You see everybody?

MELHELM KHALIF: Yes, of course (laughter).

AMOS: ...Because anyone can be targeted. And now that the coronavirus has shut down street protests, more people are likely to protest online.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.