Latest Cybercrime Law amendments once again risk curbing free speech in Jordan

11 April 2019

Copy of draft law obtained by Jordanian civil society shows failure to address concerns raised by UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression.

MENA Rights Group has sought the intervention of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression with the Jordanian authorities to ensure that proposed amendments to the country’s Cybercrime Law are in line with international human rights standards.

The most recent amendments to Cybercrime Law No. 27 of 2015 were introduced before the House of Representatives on December 12, 2018, and are currently being examined by the Senate, the upper house of the Jordanian parliament.

While the draft is still not available to the public, a copy obtained by Jordanian civil society shows a clear failure to implement changes requested by the UN Special Rapporteur on December 7, 2018 after a previous version of the amendments was presented to the parliament earlier in the year.

Cybercrime legislation in Jordan

Cybercrime Law No. 27 was adopted in June 2015, replacing the Law of Information System Crimes, which was adopted without debate by the Jordanian parliament in August 2010.

In January 2017, the Ministry of Justice proposed amendments to the Cybercrime Law explicitly addressing “hate speech” and, in June 2018, the government approved the text before presenting it to parliament.

The text was withdrawn on December 9, 2018 following pressure from civil society actors and representatives of political parties, who expressed concern that the draft amendments failed to meet international standards governing freedom of expression online. These concerns were echoed by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression in a communication sent to the Jordanian authorities on December 7.

However, just three days after the text was withdrawn, on December 12, the executive introduced alternative amendments before the House of Representatives without any prior consultation of civil society.

A copy of the alternative amendments seen by MENA Rights Group highlights a failure on the part of the Jordanian authorities to address concerns raised by the UN Special Rapporteur, as well as the introduction of additional provisions that fail to meet international standards. As a result, on April 8, 2019, MENA Rights Group provided the Special Rapporteur with a legal analysis of the latest amendments, requesting that he once again intervene with the authorities to ensure the text is brought into line with international human rights standards.

December 2018 amendments

As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) since 1975, Jordan is bound by the human rights standards contained therein. However, the latest amendments to the Cybercrime Law – as with their previous version – fail to meet the standards governing freedom of expression outlined in the ICCPR.

When MENA Rights Group first sought the intervention of the UN Special Rapporteur in November 2018, our central concern was the proposed definition of hate speech, which was not in line with article 20 of the ICCPR.

The latest amendments define hate speech as “[e]very writing and every speech or action intended to provoke sectarian or racial sedition, advocate for violence or foster conflict between followers of different religions and various components of the nation”.

While the definition has been reworded from the previous version, it remains excessively vague and imprecise, relying on subjective and unclear terms that could confer wide discretionary powers to judges.

As a result of this broad and imprecise definition, the amendments risk criminalising a wide range of acts falling under the right to freedom of expression that is protected under international human rights law.

Furthermore, while the minimum penalty for crimes of hate speech has been decreased in the latest amendments from one year to three months in prison, it is concerning that there is no maximum penalty.

Penalties for crimes of defamation have also been reduced in the latest version of the amendments, with a maximum prison sentence of two years introduced for those found guilty of defamation on social media or online media outlets. This, in turn, eliminates pre-trial detention for online defamation, as people accused of misdemeanours with set punishments of two years or less are not eligible for pre-trial detention under Jordan’s Code of Criminal Procedure.

However, in its submission to the UN Special Rapporteur, MENA Rights Group highlighted that defamation should only lead to civil proceedings and not criminal proceedings, and should never result in the deprivation of liberty. In their current form, the proposed penalties for defamation could lead to a climate of self-censorship, negatively affecting the public’s right to information.

The penalties for publishing “fake news” and “rumours” contained in the latest amendments also remain of concern. Individuals found guilty can be punished with fines as well as prison terms ranging from three months to two years. However, a definition of the aforementioned terms is absent from the amendments, handing broad discretionary powers to the authorities. We fear this provision would suppress a wide range of expression, including criticism of the government, news reporting, political campaigning and the expression of unpopular, controversial or minority opinions.

Moreover, we are concerned by the addition of the term “applications” to the definition of “information systems” in the latest amendments, which, in practical terms, means that smartphone apps including WhatsApp and Viber would be subject to surveillance.   

Finally, the amendments introduce a specialised court to hear complaints filed under the Cybercrime Law, however, the text provides no information regarding the appointment process nor the necessary guarantees of organisational and functional independence of the chambers.

As a result of the Jordanian authorities’ failure to implement the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations, as well as the additional concerning provisions contained in the latest version of the amendments, MENA Rights Group requested the Special Rapporteur’s intervention to ensure that the text is brought into line with international human rights standards. MENA Rights Group also requested that the Special Rapporteur remind Jordan of its obligations under the ICCPR to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression.

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