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‘Hotline Jais’ app opens floodgates of vigilantism, lawyers warn

Published in Malay Mail Online

By Zurairi AR

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 8 ― A mobile app that enables the public to report suspected Shariah crimes will ultimately encourage and empower religious vigilantism, human rights lawyers have warned.

Commenting on the Selangor Islamic Religious Department’s (Jais) brand new “Hotline Jais” app, the lawyers say that the move will open the floodgates for anybody looking to enact mischief and malice by harassing or bullying others.

They also believe that the app does not offer sufficient safeguards against false accusation.

“I think the idea of such an app to report crime is a good one in itself. What I am not comfortable about is that it is used to enforce personal morality,” lawyer Fahri Azzat told Malay Mail Online.

“It will certainly encourage vigilantism because it is easy to report things now. [Just] snap a picture.”

Meanwhile, Latheefa Koya of civil liberties group Lawyers for Liberty stressed that the app goes against the spirit of Islam, claiming that the religion places great importance of privacy and prohibits adherents spying on each other.

“I am really not sure how this so called vigilante type of facility helps the image of Islam,” Latheefa said.

“If you genuinely want to eradicate vice, then you must guide and teach morals, not by humiliating and looking for wrong of others.”

On Tuesday, technology portal Amanz reported that the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) launched the app, currently only available for Android smartphones, aiming to among others combat vice and deviant teachings.

Speaking to English daily The Star, Jais director Datuk Haris Kasim said the app wishes to make it “more difficult” for Muslims to commit Shariah offences, by enabling the public to reach Jais easily.

“We just want to be more approachable. We are doing our best to reduce and eventually eradicate activities that are wrong, and by the launch of this app, we hope people who intend to do wrong will think twice.

“Once a complaint is submitted via the app, we can immediately deploy a team to the location,” he told The Star.

The app has so far received 36 one-star review out of 48 users, earning it a rating of 2.4 over 5 at the time of writing, with many reviewers chiding its moral policing.

A screen capture of the brand new ‘Hotline Jais’ app.
A screen capture of the brand new ‘Hotline Jais’ app.

Vigilance, or just voyeurism?

To report crimes in the app, users must fill up a form to submit the date, address, and the details of the alleged offence. Users can even attach a photo of the alleged offence being committed.

“This app seem to encourage a rather unsavoury form of voyeurism. One of my main concerns is the ease of photoshopping ― it will not be difficult for someone with a vendetta to use the app for nefarious reasons,” human rights lawyer Honey Tan said.

Like Tan, Fahri was also concerned with potential abuse and misunderstanding from its usage, especially when photos can easily be doctored and manipulated.

“What if for a short moment I am walking the same direction as a lady and we are walking at arm’s length? Someone can take a shot from an angle to make it look like it’s just both of us and committing khalwat,” he said, referring to the offence of two Muslims of opposite sex in close proximity.

“That is why apps should not be used to enforce personal morality. But then personal morality should not be made an offence anyway!”

Is snooping, even in the name of religion, legal?

The Hotline Jais app markets itself in the Google Play app store as a “shopping” app, an apparent violation of Google’s Content Policies by providing misleading claims.

However, the lawyers disagreed as to whether the app itself contravenes any laws on Malaysian soil when it comes privacy and personal liberties.

“The app is dealing with wrongdoings that do not fall under the Penal Code. But then again, there is no right to privacy under the Federal Constitution,” Latheefa admitted.

“The app by itself is not illegal. And it is still open whether we have a right to privacy in Malaysia because there is no clear provision for this in the Constitution, and the Courts are still ambivalent about it and have not articulated that right in any meaningful manner,” Fahri concurred.

Despite that, Fahri contended that many of the Shariah criminal offences themselves breach the Fundamental Liberties enshrined under Articles 5 until 13 in the Constitution.

On the other hand, Tan explained while a photo report taken in public might not be a breach of privacy, a case for civil claim can be made if the recording was made in a home or office.

Facing false accusations

The app serves its terms of conditions prior to each report, with users required to confirm that their report is genuine and they will be responsible for it, while Jais reserves the right to not take any action on false or dubious reports.

But Latheefa said the app should be more rigorous in detailing the sort of legal action and punishment that is liable to those submitting false accusations. Especially when the app promises that the identity of the report-lodger would be kept confidential.

“They should spell it out, otherwise it would be a hassle. Say, if I am a victim and Jais comes to raid my house ― the very fact that they appeared is already embarassing,” Latheefa said.

“How would I be able to know who made the report? You are allowing, facilitating people to report, but you protect the ones who report. The protection must be on the person who was accused.”

And it is likely that the brunt of the false reports may fall on women, Tan suggested, pointing out that there have been several cases where Muslim men were not punished or received lesser punishment than their women counterparts.

Among others, Tan related the case of Azlina Abbas, a 29-year-old who was charged for “insulting Islam” in 2001, for singing in a pub. She was arrested and charged, but not her male band members, Tan said.

Just April this year, actress Faye Kusairi became the victim of false accusation of khalwat, after Jais officer broke into her family duplex condominium in the wee hours of morning. She was not even home at that time.

As of last month, internal probe by Jais decided that its officers did not breach any standard operating procedures, a volte-face from its previous stance. Faye will now proceed with a civil suit against the religious enforcers.

“I don’t think it is just women that can be victims of this app. Any person is open to be a victim of this app,” said Fahri.

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