Around one month ago, an infamous crime in Beirut led to the killing of a municipal guard. Its consequences, however, far exceeded the culprit and the victim, as the crime was used to fuel racism against Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Beirut Members of Parliament (MPs) ultimately invoked the crime as a pretext to launch the application “Tabligh” (an Arabic word that literally means “report”).
MP Ghassan Hasbani launched the app during a press conference as part of the “Every Citizen is a Sentinel” campaign. This initiative introduced the Tabligh application, encouraging Lebanese citizens to report violations committed by Syrian refugees residing illegally in Beirut.
This is how it works: To report a violation, you take a photo of the “offender,” choose the type of violation from a drop-down list, and then a center receives the complaint and refers it to the relevant “law-enforcement” authority.
The alleged logic behind a snitching app
The MPs involved were faced with a wave of criticism and backlash, accusing them of racism and xenophobia towards Syrians. In response, Ghassan Hasbani, the mastermind behind the app and a member of the Lebanese Forces parliamentary bloc, “The Strong Republic,” told SMEX: “The main purpose of the Tabligh app is to help security authorities prosecute both foreign and Lebanese perpetrators and hold them accountable.”
“It will be launched, in its first phase, in Beirut, where we receive hundreds of daily calls and complaints from inhabitants reporting violations taking place in the dark. It is, of course, difficult for us to promptly respond and follow-up each of these calls, and here is where the app steps in.”
“The Beirut municipal guard incident added fuel to the fire, but we were already prepared to launch the app before the crime occurred. Recognizing the necessity for such a tool in Lebanese society, we believed it could effectively alleviate tensions between Lebanese and Syrian refugees, irrespective of the rumors and narratives promoted by foreign-funded and leftist media outlets,” he added.
Hasbani’s personal office will handle receiving and screening the input submitted through the app, before forwarding it to the appropriate security authority. Hasbani added, “During the initial week following the app’s launch, we received numerous complaints from residents of Beirut I district. The app, however, was then hacked by a party we know too well, and we are currently working on retrieving it.”
Hasbani also mentioned that the Tabligh app seeks to “contain rampant racism in the Beirut I district,” adding that its purpose is to “report the perpetrators and hand them to the cooperative security authorities,” preventing incidents from escalating.
A dehumanizing endeavor
Legal experts consider the app to be the fruit of an “extremist doctrine” adopted by parties ever since the Lebanese War.
In an interview with SMEX, Wadih Al-Asmar, President of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH), a Lebanese non-profit and non-partisan organization based in Beirut, viewed Tabligh as merely “additional proof of the bankruptcy of the Lebanese state, government, and political parties.”
“Party leaders and representatives are flexing their muscles at the expense of the most vulnerable social class to feed populist and political interests that are far from being humanitarian. They are also fueling racism in our already-fragmented society, pitting citizens against each other, and encouraging them to violate other people’s privacy and tarnish their image.”
Al-Asmar further clarified: “We hear in legal texts and televised interviews that every individual, regardless of their race, color, difference, or nationality, has the minimum right to respectful treatment and dignified living. This right constitutes the core of the United Nations Charter, which requires countries hosting refugees and displaced individuals to provide the needed aid and support within specific frameworks that member countries have voluntarily agreed to.”
“It is, therefore, unfortunate to come across such an inhumane scenario in practice that calls for the prosecution and criminalization of displaced individuals on the sole basis of being Syrian, i.e., a reflection of ideological backgrounds entrenched in some minds as a result of the Lebanese War and the Syrian occupation of Lebanon.”
Al-Asmar added that, according to Lebanese law, it is not the duty of the citizen to be the “sentinel,” for such tasks are only required of citizens in specific emergency circumstances and in response to a call for help or relief. In all other circumstances, it is no more than snitching.
“In the event that the application – which is still a theory so far – is fully launched, we, as legal entities, will take action and file a complaint to the Judge of Urgent Matters to prosecute any individual who intentionally stores the data of others. We will also provide legal aid to those affected, and we will bring to justice the creators of the application and anyone involved, in Lebanon or abroad, in this breach of values and humanity,” Al-Asmar concluded.
Legal loopholes in the application
In addition to the widespread concerns about the initiative’s infringement on human rights and its perceived racist inclinations that disregard human values and the ethical treatment of individuals, legal and human rights experts have identified several legal violations inherent in the application.
In this context, Najah Itani, a Legal and Policy Officer at SMEX, views the app as a tool for reporting violations, purportedly designed by its developers to enhance security and address legal infractions. However, restricting the focus solely to Syrian refugees ultimately exacerbates racism and rights abuses, according to Itani.
Itani questioned: “If the person who reported a violation is anonymous, submits a false report, or is involved in slander, who can hold them accountable? The feasibility of the application remains unclear. What criteria, for example, allows distinguishing Syrian refugees from Lebanese citizens?”
Concerning legal loopholes in the application, Itani confirmed that, without prior consent, capturing pictures of any individual, whether they work in a private or public space, is a violation of privacy. The legal framework in Lebanon for protecting personal data is insufficient to allow the collection, processing, and storage of personal data in accordance with the best standards in the field.
According to Itani, although the essence of an MP’s function is to represent the Lebanese people, they are not considered part of the state and do not have the capacity to take measures to protect their security.
Hence, the involvement of a Member of Parliament (MP) or a political party does not confer any official legitimacy to the initiative, rendering the application essentially an individual endeavor. Furthermore, individuals adversely affected by the application may hold the responsible MP liable for personal criminal repercussions.
Itani concluded by indicating that the application is not yet available on trusted app stores, which means that there is insufficient information to understand the details of the app and how it processes data.
While Tabligh’s removal from Google Play and Apple Store addresses the immediate issue, the underlying problem extends beyond the app itself. It resides in the mindset promoting the belief that “every citizen is a sentinel,” exacerbating tensions between Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees.
Furthermore, the involvement of individuals with official capacities and parliamentary presence in launching such initiatives gives a false sense of legitimacy to these violations instead of empowering the state, rather than individuals, to seek solutions.