AMMAN — Former government officials, activists and journalists on Monday said that civil society bears the greatest challenge in the fight against the cybercrime bill which they claim will “shrink freedom of expression in the Kingdom”.
The call was made during a one-day forum held by the Coordination Committee for Civil Society Organisations (HIMAM)titled “Freedom of Expression Prerequisites for Reform”.
Former minister of foreign affairs Marwan Muasher stressed the need to ensure full freedoms of speech to all Jordanians.
When freedom of expression is granted to all citizens, then this will surely work towards “developing Jordanian society and keeping citizens engaged”, Muasher stressed.
“We cannot tackle freedom of speechwithout touching on the draft cybercrime bill that is currently being debated in Parliament,” Muasher said.
On July 25, the Lower House of Parliament endorsed the 2023 cybercrime bill that referred from the Lower House’s Legal Committee. The bill was passed following extended deliberations that resulted in amendments to certain articles.
“The speed in which this law was passed by the Lower House of Parliament is unprecedented despite the public’s objections to this law,” Muasher said.
This, the former minister maintained, is an indication that such objections “have no value in the eyes of the legislative and administrative authorities”.
Muasher contended that “no one opposes setting controls to protect the private life of individuals, but the problem is that such laws that can be used for a specific problem that needs to be solved, can go much further in a way that leads to restricting freedom of opinion and expression, and in a way that bypasses the problem and creates other dilemmas that strengthen the dominance of the executive authority over public spaces and muzzledissenting mouths.”
In her opening remarks at the forum, Senior Human Rights Advisor to the UN Resident Coordinator in Jordan Christina Meinecke-Chalev pointed out, “the digital age has brought with it immense new opportunities and challenges to the freedom of expression”.
“Social media platforms have helped people around the world contribute their own ideas and innovations to advance humanity’s collective pursuit of peace, dignity and human rights on a healthy planet,” Meinecke-Chalev told the gathering.
However, Meinecke-Chalev added that digital platforms are also “being misused to subvert science and spread disinformation and hate… and too often, technology is a source of fear, not hope”.
“Addressing these challenges requires action by many — by governments, by the private sector, including technology companies and private citizens — working together to maximise opportunities for the public good while eradicating misuse, underpinned by collective commitments to both the freedom of expression and to respect for one another,” Meinecke-Chalev said.
The rationale cited for the cybercrime bill by the government include the rapid developments in the ICT field, which the government stated require the criminalisation of illegal acts committed via electronic means, and aligning the bill with the Arab Convention on Combating Information Technology Offences and international anti-cybercrime standards.
Government statements said that bill will provide protection for public and private rights and freedoms in circumstances related to online extortion, e-fraud, incitement of violence and hatred, contempt for religion, violations of privacy and digital attacks on e-payment methods and banking services.
Prime Minister Bisher Khasawneh, who attended the Lower House session on Thursday, told the MPs that the government “does not consider the cybercrime bill a detractor from essential freedoms, and subsequently does not consider the bill unconstitutional.”
The government is “completely open to any criticism”, the prime minister said.
Khasawneh also stated that “the new law regulates and defines penalties in cyberspace,” noting that “the government has not offered anything contradictory to the Constitution”.
The prime minister spoke on three “pivotal issues”, the first of which is linked to the freedoms outlined in the Constitution. The government does not believe this bill affects or detracts from these rights at all, Khasawneh said.
The second is related to the constitutional notion that all Jordanians are equally entitled to the rights and freedoms outlined in the Constitution, and the third involves the protection of said rights and freedoms.
The government has not produced any legislation that may be deemed unconstitutional, the prime minister affirmed, stating that the Jordanian Constitution “is clear, balanced and we are always proud of it”.
“When the percentage of cybercrimes complaints becomes six times higher in a single year, reconsideration is a must,” he added.
Also addressing the gathering was former minister and university professor Mohammed Abu Rumman, who said: “There is a contradiction between the state’s messages and its declared course, and the practices and procedures that the citizen perceives on the ground”.
“At a time when the Jordanian state invites young people to engage in political life, sets regulations for practising partisan activities in universities and amends curricula to consolidate democracy, the cybercrime law works to restrict the freedom of expression,” Abu Rumman said.
Abu Rumman also said that “we feel the noticeable and terrifying decline in media freedom; this is one of the Jordanian puzzles that need interpretation.”
Founder and board member of the Centrefor Defending the Freedom of Journalists,Nidal Mansour, also criticised the bill,saying: “Its presence in the legislative books threatens every home in Jordan”.
“We are already suffering from the shrinking space in social media and the cybercrime bill will make it even worse… we really do not know where we are going,” Mansour told the gathering.
The majority of speakers agreed that the responsibility “lies heavily on civil society to agree on a unified agenda when addressing the cybercrime bill, and the means of securing freedom of expression and speech in Jordan”.
Last week, the Jordan Press Association (JPA) expressed regret over the Lower House Legal Committee’s refusal to accept the association’s objections to the cybercrime bill.
In a statement, the JPA said the decision to reduce fines by 50 per cent is appreciated, but the move is insufficient, as fines remain high and vague terms in the bill remain unchanged.
The association stressed that it stands against any violations or abuses against journalists that may occur on social media platforms. However, actions that impact freedom of the press are “unacceptable”.
The statement expressed hope that the Senate would review the bill, engaging with all relevant stakeholders to reflect upon the proposed amendments, namely clauses pertaining to fines and legal terminology.
HIMAM was established in 2015 and consists of several civil society organisations with the goal of ensuring unity among organisations to boost the role of non-governmental institutions in society and enable them to play a leading role, as well as uphold the values of democracy and human rights.
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