Photo: The King of Jordan, Wikimedia Commons
On the 12th of August, the King of Jordan, Abdullah II, approved legislation which puts strong control on what Jordanians can say and do on the internet. This law, which was previously passed by the Jordanian Parliament and Senate, will officially be applied in a few weeks. Although pro-government lawmakers describe the legislation, called the ‘cybercrime law’, as essential for exercising control over blackmailers and online attackers, experts argue that the law is meant to increase state control over the internet and therefore harms fundamental rights and freedoms, such as the freedom of expression, the right to information, and the right to privacy.
This article will look at the context, content, and criticisms of Jordan’s new cybercrime laws.
Jordan’s political context
Jordan’s latest method of restricting citizens’ freedoms falls within a familiar pattern of the Jordanian government, which is far from liberal and democratic: the King holds most political power, the judicial system is not independent, and most members of parliament are loyal to the government. Jordan’s system of checks and balances was further weakened in 2022, when a new set of constitutional amendments allowed the formation of a new governmental body, the National Security Council, which contains key ministers, the heads of the King’s security apparatus, and others, appointed by the king. It holds wide-ranging powers and is described as ‘a fourth branch of government’ which can bypass the Council of Ministers or Parliament. Additionally, under the constitutional changes, King Abdullah II has the power to bypass the Council of Ministers in the appointment of powerful political appointments.
Jordan’s institutional set-up has repeatedly shown to be harmful to its citizens. In recent years, Jordanians have experienced increasing repression in civic space. For instance, citizens who are peacefully protesting face the risk of being persecuted and intimidated by the authorities. In 2022, Human Rights Watch stated that journalists and protesters are increasingly targeted by the authorities who are conducting a “systematic campaign to quell peaceful opposition and silence critical voices”. State control on civic space has also been increasingly evident on social media: Jordan has banned TikTok and social media blackouts take place regularly.
What does the cybercrime law entail?
The recently passed legislation, which contains 41 articles, is meant to replace Jordan’s cybercrime law that stems from 2015. The new cybercrime law will justify prison sentences and penalties for a range of activities including:
- using tools such as VPNs for anonymity;
- promoting, instigating, aiding or inciting immorality;
- spreading fake news;
- undermining national unity;
- provoking strife;
- damaging one’s reputation;
- spreading pornographic content;
- showing contempt for religions, and
- offending law enforcement officials.
What makes this law so harmful?
There are several reasons for which the law seriously goes against international human rights standards and principles.
Firstly, the law uses many broad and vague terms, which allow authorities to interpret the law at their own convenience and arbitrarily use the law to oppress individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Secondly, the ban on offending law enforcement officials makes it dangerous for individuals to express public criticism of officials, something which is essential to democratic culture.
Thirdly, the limits on online anonymity make it impossible for individuals to protect their identity.
It is important to note that minority groups, such as members of the LGBTQI community, are particularly vulnerable under the cybercrime law. For instance, the ban on pornographic content and ‘promoting immorality’ is likely to target harmless content related to gender, sexuality, and LGBTQ-rights. Furthermore, the limits on online anonymity can be even more harmful to LGBTQ-people for whom being anonymous can be necessary to ensure their safety.
What are the reactions to the law?
Before the law was passed, 14 organisations, including Human Rights Watch, issued a statement which called for the bill to be scrapped, arguing that the bill would “undermine free speech online, threaten internet users’ right to anonymity, and introduce new authority to control social media that would pave the way for an alarming surge in online censorship.”
The United States, who is one of Jordan’s main allies, also publicly expressed criticism of the law. A spokesperson of the US State Department said that “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.” Jordanian opposition and rights groups have also voiced concerns over the effects of the law: the opposition’s deputy leader stated that “Jordan will become a big jail.”
It is clear that Jordan’s new cybercrime law further hampers the country’s path to democracy. Not only does it fundamentally harm citizen’s rights and freedoms, it also puts vulnerable communities in direct danger. As the US is Jordan’s main donor, it should do more than just raise concerns: perhaps by setting stronger criteria on the enormous amount of military support it gives to Jordan. The EU has a role in protecting Jordanian citizens too, as it is also a key partner for the country. Jordan’s allies should not prioritise strategic military deals over the safety of millions of people. In other words, the Jordanian government needs to be held accountable by those of which it is most dependent.
Written by Luna Sent