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Jordan: Cybercrime law slams free speech as criminal content

August 25, 2023

The controversial law cracks down on criticism and bans anonymous internet pathways. Activists fear that this will affect the LGBTQ minority.

A man wearing traditional Arab headdress overlooking The Treasury at Petra in Jordan
Jordan's minorities, such as the LGBTQ community, fear an end of free speech on the internetImage: Tyson Paul/Loop Images/picture alliance

When Jordan's King Abdullah II recently approved the country's new cybercrime law, Hisham, who doesn't want to reveal his real name for fear of reprisals, would have loved to comment on it on social media.

However, given the drastically increased penalty for online criticism, the queer activist decided to not share his concerns on the internet, he told DW.

The new law, that criminalizes online content that the authorities consider to be false news, hate speech, undermining national unity or inciting immorality, is the latest addition to what observers and human rights activists see as an increasing clampdown on free speech in Jordan.

For Jordan, which was already ranked as not free earlier this year by the US-based pro-democracy initiative Freedom House, the new law could effectively mean an end of free speech on the internet.

"It is particularly worrying that the wording of the new cybercrime law is so vague," Lorena Stella Martini, Jordan researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, or ECFR, told DW, adding that "several of its articles can be interpreted and instrumentally applied to the most diverse cases."

Jordan's Prime Minister Bisher al-Khasawneh, however, defended the bill at a parliamentary session in July. He highlighted the country's sixfold increase in online crimes "where privacy was violated and online extortion caused social friction" and reiterated that a stricter version of the existing cybercrime law from 2015 was needed.

Professor Bernhard Maier, a visiting professor of cyber law at King's College London, sees the "increased use of cybercrime laws around the world as yet another instance of the fragmentation of the internet and the drawing up of artificial, real-world borders in cyberspace," he told DW. 

Jordan's protesters had set a tyre on fire during a strike on a main road against rising fuel prices
Reporting on the strike against rising fuel prices was banned in Jordan last December.Image: Khalil Mazraawi/AFP

Cybercrime law affects minorities

In July, a total of 14 organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Access Now, Article 19 and the Gulf Center for Human Rights asked Jordan's king in an open letter to review the bill as it "will further undermine free speech online, threaten internet users' right to anonymity, and introduce new authority to control social media that would pave the way for an alarming surge in online censorship."

These organizations, as well as other observers, are particularly worried about articles 12, 13 and 14.

Article 12 bans the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPN) for "criminal use" and the untraceable internet browser Tor. Both tools are globally used among dissidents and minorities, such as the queer community, as these technologies guarantee anonymous pathways for communication on the internet.

"This is effectively forcing individuals to choose between keeping their identity secure and freely expressing their opinions," Rasha Younes, senior researcher of the LGBTQ Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, told DW.

Article 13 and 14 punish the production, distribution, or consumption of "pornographic content," and content "promoting, instigating, aiding or inciting immorality," with at least six months' imprisonment and hefty fines. 

"The new law de facto criminalizes the online activities of the Jordanian LGBTQ community, with broad repercussions on offline life as a whole," ECFR's Lorena Martini added.

Criticism also came from Jordan's closest international ally, the United States. "This law, with vague definitions and concepts, could undermine Jordan's homegrown economic and political reform efforts," US State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel warned in July.

In mid-August, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also pointed out that countries need to take steps to combat cybercrime but protecting security online and ensuring online freedoms must be treated as complementary goals.

"Our concerns about the law are all the greater given increased intimidation, harassment and arrest of activists amid ever shrinking civic space in Jordan," spokesperson Liz Throssell said in a statement

Jordan's King Abdullah II looking distressed
Jordan's King Abdullah II approved the draconian cybercrime law in record timeImage: Hannibal Hanschke/AFP/Getty Images

Cybercrime law rushed from bill to law

Neither the Jordanian parliament, nor the Jordanian king, however, called for a public debate and the law was approved in the record time of less than two months.

"The fact that there was no space for public debate around this law is indeed telling of the direction that is being taken when it comes to freedom of expression in the country," Martini told DW.

This view is echoed by Edmund Ratka, the head of the German Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Foundation Office Jordan. "No one knows why the law was rushed through at such short notice and without dialogue with the civil society," he told DW.

However, he regards most parts of the law as "absolutely reasonable as it is solidly defining acts and punishment for hackers, image theft, blackmail, incitement or fraud on the internet."

Still, he sees other problems beyond the impact of articles 12, 13 and 14. He worries that, according to the new law, a person is not only responsible for their posts on social media, but also for the comments made by others in response.

"Also, the public prosecutor can file charges without a complaint having been filed first," Ratka says, adding that "this is potentially a tool for the state to take action against disagreeable critics, but so far, no one knows whether the state will actually do this."

Jordan's Crown Prince Hussein and Rajwa Al Saif cut the cake on the day of their royal wedding, in Amman, Jordan, June 1, 2023.
Positive coverage, such as the royal wedding of Jordan's Crown Prince Hussein and Rajwa Al Saif earlier in June, would not be curbed by the new cybercrime law. Image: Royal Hashemite Court/REUTERS

Jordan's contradicting push for inclusion

In the past two years, Jordan has striven to include more young people in the political process. For this, a new electoral law and a new party law were introduced.

"It is a paradox to think that young people in particular, can be motivated to participate in political life and at the same time, curb free speech on online networks and social media," Ratka said.

He sees the upcoming Jordanian parliamentary elections in 2025 as "litmus test for the political revival in Jordan."

"If unrevised, the cybercrime law could prove to be an own goal because election campaigns are also conducted online and it is not yet foreseeable whether the willingness to campaign online will also be made more difficult by the cybercrime law," Ratka said.

Edited by: Rob Mudge

Media freedom under threat globally

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Jennifer Holleis is an editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa.
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