Amendments to Jordan’s Cybercrime Law risk curbing free speech online

21 November 2018

Proposed amendments to the law addressing hate speech are due to be brought before parliament for a vote in the coming weeks

MENA Rights Group is concerned over the imminent adoption of amendments to Jordan’s Cybercrime Law, which among other things aim at combatting hate speech, but instead risk further restricting online freedom of expression in the country.

The amendments, proposed by the Ministry of Justice, and referred to the parliamentary legal committee for discussion in September 2018, could be brought before parliament for a vote at any moment.

The proposed amendments define the offence of hate speech in an overly broad manner, and impose harsh penalties ranging from fines to prison terms for anyone who publishes or republishes what is considered hate speech online. As a result, the amendments risk further restricting what is already a repressive piece of legislation, thus promoting a climate of self-censorship among internet users.

Concerned by these further restrictions, on November 15, 2018, MENA Rights Group appealed to the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Providing an analysis of the current law and the proposed amendments, MENA Rights Group requested that the Special Rapporteur call on the Jordanian authorities to amend the Cybercrime Law, and in particular the proposed definition of hate speech.

Jordan’s legal environment and the criminalisation of free speech

The current Cybercrime Law, which replaced the Law of Information System Crimes in 2015, already places undue restrictions on freedom of expression as well as freedom of the press. While media activities are supposed to be regulated by the Press and Publication Law of 1998 – under which journalists cannot face imprisonment – in 2015, the Law Interpretation Bureau ruled that the Cybercrime Law would supersede other legislation.

As a result, journalists can be imprisoned for print articles if they appear online, since the Cybercrime Law states that internet users can face a jail term and a fine if they are found guilty of defamation on social media or online media outlets. It was under the current version of the Cybercrime Law that Hussam Al Abdallat, a former government official, journalist and anti-corruption activist, was detained in 2017 for having criticised corruption within the Jordanian government on Facebook.

In addition, the country’s Penal Code contains several speech offences that apply to online expression, such as insulting a foreign state or members of the Jordanian royal family, along with encouraging “the contestation of the political system”.

During its latest review of Jordan in October 2017, the UN Human Rights Committee noted that the Jordanian Penal Code contained provisions used to prosecute journalists expressing views considered critical. 

The 2018 amendments

MENA Rights Group’s primary concern is the amendments’ proposed definition of hate speech, which is excessively vague and imprecise, as it relies on subjective and unclear terms.

The amendments define hate speech as “any statement or act that would incite discord (fitna), religious, sectarian, racial or ethnic strife or discrimination between individuals or groups.” As such, the definition does not meet international standards regarding restrictions on free speech.

Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) stipulates that “[s]tates shall prohibit by law any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”

The definition of hate speech in the proposed amendments includes “any statements or act”, failing to narrow the scope to advocacy of hatred only. Moreover, the causal link between the expression and the resulting risk of discrimination, hostility or violence is not explicitly spelled out in the definition, and the religiously inspired concept of fitna (discord) is very broad in scope, conferring wide discretionary powers to judges.

Other concerns include the amendments’ failure to distinguish between publishing hate speech on public or private channels, as well as the risk of internet users being imprisoned for sharing content that is alleged to include hate speech. With regards to the latter, the amendments would criminalise reposting or sharing contentious content even without an endorsement of the alleged hate speech.

Opposition to the amendments

On November 12, 2018, the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review adopted its draft report following the third review of Jordan. The report contains a number of recommendations regarding the Cybercrime Law and freedom of expression. One example is Sweden, Canada and the U.S.A.’s recommendations that Jordan narrow or remove the definition of “hate speech” from the proposed amendments.

Jordanians have also taken to social media to campaign against the amendments under the hashtag “اسحب_قانون_الجرائم_الإلكترونية” or “withdraw Cybercrime Law”, protesting the restrictions the amendments would place on freedom of expression.

On December 7, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression urged the government to revise the proposed amendments.

Last updated: 22/03/2019

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