Jordanian rights groups warn new cybercrime law threatens free speech

Jordanian rights groups warn new cybercrime law threatens free speech
The new cybercrime law could ban VPNs, empower authorities to block social media platforms and threaten journalists' work.
4 min read
19 July, 2023
The new law was criticised for its overly vague phrasing, which activists said gave authorities room to stifle dissent. [Getty]

Human rights activists warned that new amendments to Jordan's cybercrime law would be a blow to freedom of expression in the country as parliament debates the new provisions.

The 41 proposed amendments to the law are wide-reaching and could hand authorities sweeping new powers to block social media platforms, ban virtual private networks (VPNs), and throttle, or slow down, websites at a judge's orders.

A judge could block access to a social media platform in Jordan, for example, if it did not comply with the state's request to delete a post or provide the personal data of specific users.

The draft bill also introduces criminal charges for behaviours such as "online character assassination" or using the internet to "undermine national unity."

Legal experts have said these new offences contain vague phrasing, giving authorities unprecedented power to crack down on free speech.

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"This would be a huge step back for freedom of speech and expression, whether the law is used against social media users or against ordinary websites. Prisons would be rammed with social media users," Khaled Khlaifat, a Jordanian lawyer specialised in media and cybercrime law, told The New Arab.

The ambiguity of the law also could open the door to further online surveillance by the state, digital activists said.

"Article 12, for example, could criminalise VPNs and proxies. The clause says you can't use something that changes your IP address 'if the intent is to do the crime,'" Raya Sharbain, a Jordan-based security trainer with the Tor project, told TNA.

Jordanian authorities block apps and websites which host content it deems offensive or dissenting, such as TikTok for hosting videos of protests in late 2022 or the satirical website al-Hudood after it made light of the crown prince's wedding.

Many Jordanians rely on VPNs to bypass virtual bans and view these websites.

"So here is the question, how will I, as a judge, prove that this person intended to commit a crime through the use of a VPN? There are many clauses like that seem to imply there will be extra surveillance," Sharbain said.

Activists launched an online campaign on Tuesday night to protest the potential passage of the new amendments under the hashtag "A state, not a prison." 

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A chilling effect on freedom of the press

Critics have expressed concern about the law's potential effects on journalists and activists, whose reporting on public officials and institutions could land them in prison if deemed offensive.

Article 15 of the proposed cybercrime law makes it a jailable offence to "send or publish" any "false news, slander, or insults" online.

The article specifies that if directed at any public authority or official, such speech would automatically trigger prosecution by the public prosecutor without requiring the party to issue a complaint.

"This law will make public employees immune from questioning, from prosecution. If you decrease accountability for public officials, corruption will increase," Khlaifat said.

The Minister of State for Legal Affairs, Nancy Namrouqa, said in an interview on 16 July that the new amendments "do not have any relation to journalists and does not target them."

In Jordan, journalists are supposed to be protected from interference in their work under the 1998 Press and Publications Law.

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Still, journalists are arrested on various charges, such as cartoonist Emad Hajjaj whose comic depicting a tiff between Israel and the UAE landed him in court for "harming relations with a sisterly country."

Jordan's existing cybercrime law has been used by authorities to silence dissent, with the leadership of the teacher's syndicate – the country's largest labour union – arrested on cybercrime charges in July 2020 as part of a larger crackdown.

"The main narrative the government is pushing is that [these amendments] are for the protection of people and the protection of society … but it's obviously for the protection of people in power," Sharbain said.

Rights organisations have noted a steady erosion of Jordan's civil space and increased authorities' persecution of activists in recent years.

In 2021, Jordan was downgraded by Freedom House from "Partially Free" to "Not Free" due to its crackdown on civil society.