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.
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.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.