Jordan adopts cybercrime law seen as threat to free speech

Jordan adopts cybercrime law seen as threat to free speech
Jordan tightens rules on online activities as the new cybercrime law is approved.
2 min read
Jordan for years has cracked down on online speech. [Getty]

Jordan's parliament on Thursday approved a widely criticised cybercrime law empowering the government to control more online content, prompting U.S. concerns and alarms from rights groups that say it will further quash civil liberties.

The measure tightens prison sentences and penalties for any website, social media platform or person responsible for a public account deemed to have violated privacy and a host of other provisions. It passed by a majority vote after a marathon six-hour debate and is expected to be enacted in coming days.

The law has alarmed journalists, human rights activists and pro-democracy groups worried that its vague language would curtail further free speech and that criminalising conversations online will enable more crackdowns on political opponents.

"Jordan will become a big jail," Saleh al Armouti, a legislator and deputy leader for the opposition, said during the debate.

There has been a deterioration in freedom of expression over the past few years as Jordanian authorities target political opponents and ordinary citizens using a string of laws, according to U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

Washington, the country's main donor, criticised the measure, saying it could chill speech. The United States considers Jordan a key ally in the Middle East, giving around $1.5 billion annually for its ambitious modernisation plan and maintaining U.S. military bases there.

"This type of law, with vague definitions and concepts, could undermine Jordan's homegrown economic and political reforms efforts and further shrink the civic space that journalists, bloggers and other members of civil society operate in Jordan," U.S. State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said on Monday.

Human Rights Watch and 13 other civil groups in a joint statement said it threatened internet users’ right to anonymity and tightened government control over the internet.

Legislators and other proponents argued that the proliferation of social media has spurred privacy violations that are not covered by previous laws.

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Prime Minister Bisher al Khasawneh attended the debate and defended the measure, citing a six-fold increase in online crimes where privacy was violated and saying online extortion caused societal friction.

"The law does not touch freedoms or rights enshrined in the constitution. We're open to criticism," he said.

Jordan for years has cracked down on online speech and has unplugged social media sites during bouts of civil unrest and peaceful anti-government protests.

It blocked TikTok last December to limit the spread of live footage documenting worker protests. Civic rights defenders have also been targeted by spyware technology, according to U.S.-based Freedom House, a pro-democracy advocacy group that classifies the kingdom as "not free" in its ranking of civil and political liberties.