At first glance, a new cybersecurity law approved by
Jordan’s parliament last week appears to be a genuine effort to protect people
from online fraud, electronic extortion, and personal data breaches. Amid a
six-fold increase in cybercrime between 2013 and 2022, the government says
changes are needed to defend against technological advances.
But several articles in the legislation are vague and overly
broad, and could be misused to silence and penalize critics, limit already
shrinking public freedoms, stifle social media, and undermine access to
For starters, the law would make it a crime to criticize
government officials on social media platforms and introduce stringent
penalties for doing so. Article 15 states that intentionally sharing false
information is punishable by up to three months in prison and a fine of up to
JD20,000 after parliament’s legal committees slashed it from a proposed
More troubling is a clause that if the alleged crime is
directed toward authorities, officials, government institutions and those in
public office, the public prosecution can pursue a case without requiring a
Eroding public trust
While the government focuses on curbing speech, every day
people are simply struggling to make ends meet. Nearly half of Jordanian youth
are out of work, and the perception of widespread corruption has eroded public
trust in the government. Parliament is largely seen as a malleable rubber-stamp
Calls to revoke the cyber-crimes bill persist. Free speech
advocates, including lawyers, human rights activists, journalists, and several
members of parliament have called for the bill to be shelved. So far, the
government has ignored these pleas.
To be sure, cybercrime is surging in Jordan. Last year,
16,000 cybercrime complaints were reported to authorities, with an additional
8,000 recorded in the first half of this year. In 2015, there were just 2,305
cases. But the increased number of cybercrimes shouldn’t be used as an excuse
to restrict freedom of expression.
The controversy surrounding the draft bill has exposed the
complexities of striking a balance between safeguarding cyber and national
security and protecting free speech and human rights. For now, Jordan’s leaders
appear to be prioritizing the former at the cost of the latter.
At a time when Jordan is moving ahead to modernize its
political system, the cybersecurity law is counterproductive. Its enactment
would have grave implications not only for citizens and businesses, but also
for Jordan’s reputation, especially in Western countries, whose aid has helped
prop up the country’s ailing economy.
If the bill becomes law, it will be a final nail in the
coffin of public freedoms. Jordan must move quickly to revoke the bill.
A powerful tool
Human Rights Watch says the “draconian” bill fails to comply
with international law and makes it impossible for social media users to
regulate their conduct accordingly. Vedant Patel, a top spokesperson for the US
State Department, recently noted that the law, with its “vague definitions and
concepts, could undermine Jordan’s homegrown economic and political reform
efforts and further shrink the civic space that journalists, bloggers, and
other members of civil society operate in in Jordan.”
The use of ambiguous wording in Jordanian law is not
uncommon and is often used as a tactic by authorities to crack down on dissent
and muzzle critics. There are already restrictions on freedom of speech in
Jordan’s penal code, the press and publication law, and the counter terrorism
law. The cybercrime law would add legal teeth to these already restrictive
“Since parliament is weak and the media is controlled,
social media … became a powerful tool for citizens to express their view and
share information,” Yahya Shqair, a media expert in Jordan, told me recently.
This latest law is simply another tool with which the government can use to “immunize
itself from public scrutiny.”
The cybersecurity legislation is just the latest in a long
list of moves to undermine free speech online. In December, the government
banned TikTok after truck drivers staged a strike against rising fuel prices.
Clubhouse, a social audio app, has been blocked since March 2021. Al Hudood, a
satirical news website, was blocked in June. The cybercrime bill will now go to
the senate for consideration.
Anyone attempting to circumvent the bans with VPNs and
proxies face fines of up to JD25,000.
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