Journalists protest the cybercrime bill in Amman on on 28 July, 2023. (Photo: Middle East Eye )
Jordan’s ruler, King Abdullah II, has approved a controversial cybercrime law days after it was cleared by both houses of parliament. The law will come into effect one month after it is published in the official state newspaper, Al-Ra’i. Opposition parties and several Jordanian and international human rights groups have criticized the law as “draconian” and an attack on freedom of speech and press in the country, already under pressure from the government. Jordanians have also staged protests against the bill and had called on the government to rescind it.
The bill introduces a new set of prohibitions and restrictions on speech and posts made on social media and elsewhere on the internet that the government deems to be a danger to national unity. It also lists other crimes and violations which rights groups and activists have called ambiguous and vague, such as ‘promoting, instigating, aiding, or inciting immorality’, demonstrating ‘contempt for religion’, ‘fake news’, ‘online assassination of personality’, and ‘provoking strife’. The bill prescribes prison terms along with financial fines for anyone found guilty of committing these offenses. Furthermore, it bans the use of VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), which is now punishable by up to six months in prison along with a fine of 25,000-50,000 Jordanian Dinars. The law additionally allows government authorities to block social media platforms or order the removal of certain posts. In total, the law has made 41 modifications to the existing 2015 cybercrime law.
Several writers, journalists, artists and others have already been persecuted by the Jordanian authorities over social media posts criticizing the government and its policies. These include well-known satirist Ahmed Hassan al-Zouabi, who was sentenced to one year in prison last week over a Facebook post about the rising fuel prices in the country and the government’s inability to bring them under control. The appeals court which sentenced him found him guilty of charges including “incited sectarian and racist strife” and “incited conflict between the components of the nation.” Journalists Hiba Abu Taha and Khaled al Majali were also recently arrested on similar vague charges. Both were given a prison sentence of three months and a financial fine. The journalists had questioned government policies and institutions like the monarchy.
Activists and rights groups fear that the newly amended cybercrime law will further empower the government to curb dissent and restrict the freedom of speech and expression. In the days before the bill was passed, 14 human rights groups including Human Rights Watch had written to the Jordanian King appealing to him to not approve the bill into law and reminding him of his grand pronouncement from the past: “sky is the limit for press freedom.”