Lebanon’s ban on currency exchange apps fails to stem economic woes

In May, Emily Lewis reported for Coda Story on state repression in Lebanon amid a worsening economic crisis.

As the value of the Lebanese pound — which is officially pegged to the U.S. dollar — collapsed, an unofficial market sprang up for people to exchange the currency at its market value. The government responded by cracking down on currency traders as well as blocking dozens of apps which tracked going rates for the Lebanese pound on the illicit market.

Such apps, however, have continued to proliferate, and blocking them is a losing battle, according to Abed Kataya, digital content manager at SMEX, a digital rights organization. The going rate for the pound, which is officially fixed at around 1,500 to the dollar, has now exceeded 8,000.

Following a negotiated end to the currency dealers’ strike, the official exchanges were reopened in early June. But this reopening did not have the intended effect on the currency rates, “because people are not buying from these dealers, because they buy from the black market, because the black market gives them a higher rate,” explained Kataya.

Meanwhile, repression of Lebanese civil society has escalated, according to Jad Shahrour of the Samir Kassir Foundation, which tracks violations against journalists and activists. Last week, a judge in southern Lebanon banned all media from interviewing U.S. ambassador Dorothy Shea for one year following comments she made criticizing Hezbollah, a political party and militant group. After his ruling sparked international outcry, the judge, Mohammed Mazeh, resigned on Tuesday.

The government has also escalated its online censorship by blocking access via 3G mobile networks to sites hosted by the platform Blogger, according to SMEX. The move follows similar censorship of the dating app Grindr.

Photo: Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images

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Gautama Mehta

Gautama Mehta is a reporting fellow at Coda Story.