Prosecution of famed Jordanian satirist sparks outrage in civil society

Prosecution of famed Jordanian satirist sparks outrage in civil society
Activists said the prosecution of al-Zoubi was a violation of freedom of speech in Jordan.
3 min read
13 March, 2023
The electronic crimes law has been criticised by rights monitors for being used as a tool to stifle dissent. [Getty]

Over three hundred lawyers signed a letter to defend Ahmad Hasan Al-Zoubi in court, with many showing up to the courthouse as a show of solidarity, causing the public prosecutor to delay the session.

The prosecutor issued a travel ban against al-Zoubi on Sunday, preventing him from leaving the country for at least a month.

The prosecutor has yet to reveal the charges, but al-Zoubi told The New Arab that the case was in response to a Facebook post he made criticising a speech by a Jordanian official during a series of transportation strikes in December.

"Freedom of speech is becoming worse in Jordan. Freedom has to be guaranteed for all journalists," al-Zoubi told TNA.

"As a journalist and satirist, you are a referee between parliament and the government. If you see a mistake or violation, you write about it … and then they can fix it. You are speaking for the people," al-Zoubi said.

Al-Zoubi's legal defence expects that he will be charged under Jordan's electronic crimes law, which has been criticised in the past for being overly vague and for a policy to stifle dissent.

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"The case of Ahmad al-Zoubi summarises the current scene in Jordan. It's a continuation of the policy of restriction on rights of freedoms in Jordan, specifically freedom of speech," Hala al-Ahed, a lawyer and member of the National Forum for Detainee's Rights, told TNA.

The case against al-Zoubi was brought against him for "the right of the public," which allows the plaintiff in an electronic crimes case to conceal their identity, which activists say is often used to the advantage of the government.

"Initiating complaints by the cybercrime unit has become a way to put pressure on activists, draining their time and burdening them and their families," al-Ahed said.

Al-Zoubi said that he has been subject to 16 separate electronic crimes cases in recent years.

While al-Zoubi's case galvanised public opinion, the electronic crimes law – passed in 2019 – has been used against a slew of activists since its adoption.

The law has been applied to the leadership of the largest labour union in Jordan, the Teacher's Syndicate, as well as to a coffee stall owner who posted a Facebook status about the prime minister's wife.

"The law prohibits things like hacking. But the real insidious thing is the vague Article 11 which criminalises defamation and slander, without defining what the terms mean," Adam Coogle, the Deputy Director MENA at Human Rights Watch (HRW) told TNA.

He also described several different tactics used by the government to target activists, including travel bans and repeated delays of trials.

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While journalists are not supposed to be imprisoned for crimes related to speech under the country's press law, the electronic crimes law takes precedence if their work is published online, Coogle added.

Jordan's constitution has provisions which guarantee freedom of speech and assembly, but these protections are "in actuality, not being implemented," Salah Armouti, a member of parliament and signatory to the letter to defend al-Zoubi, told TNA.

"The freedom of opinion and expression is in the constitution, but our problem is in implementation and violations of the constitution. Unfortunately, we are seeing many activists and citizens being prosecuted," Armouti said.

Human rights monitors noted a decline in civil freedoms in Jordan and noted a trend of state repression of activists.

HRW said in September 2022 that "authorities use vague and abusive laws that criminalise speech, association and assembly," as well as "harassment" of members of civil society.