In August 2023, King Abdullah II of Jordan approved a substantial revision to the country’s near-decade old legislation on cybercrime, after the lower house of Parliament and Senate passed the new legislation with minor amendments, despite public opposition. During a parliamentary debate in July, Jordanian Prime Minister Bisher Kahswaneh maintained that the “government’s proposals do not infringe upon the constitutional equilibrium. They establish the balance of rights as stipulated in this legislation.” The cybercrime law would, in fact, uphold the right of expression. Hundreds of Jordanians had previously taken part in marches in July, denouncing the new law and calling on the King to reject ratification. On the regional level, 14 digital rights organizations had published a joint statement urging the government to withdraw the proposed bill, expressing concern that it would “further 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 US State Department spokesperson as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also criticized the legislation, stating that the law lacked a definition of certain prohibited conduct, and failed to comply with requirements of legality, legitimate aim, necessity, and proportionality of restrictions on the right to freedom of expression.
Cybersecurity in the Arab world
Jordan has been proactive in regulating cybersecurity and cybercrime in the Arab world. Recognizing the growing and changing digital landscape, as well as the resulting increasingly sophisticated cyber threats, Jordan’s National Cyber Security Strategy 2018-2023 (NCSS) declared cyber security as a “top priority of National Security Threats.” The strategy included “measures against the deployment of ‘fake news’” within its scope of cyber security and announced legislative reform “to ensure that an effective balance is maintained between security and privacy.” Part of the action plan was also to “influence and shape international and regional policies related to cyber security.”
On behalf of the Council of Arab Ministers of Information, Jordan developed a unified strategy for interaction with social media platforms, which was unanimously endorsed by the council in June 2023. The strategy is a non-binding preparatory act to frame the work of the “technical team,” who will then draft the “Arab Convention” on the topic. Jordan is also slated to lead this “technical team.” The strategy—the official text of which has not been published yet—reportedly “underscores the need to shield platforms and users from hate speech, harmful content, and criminal activities in the digital space.”
The swift passage of legislation raised concerns about transparency and participation, as neither a broad public debate, nor dialogue with civil society organizations, had taken place
Shortly after, the Jordanian Parliament was summoned by a royal decree to convene an extraordinary session on July 16, 2023, with the task to review the government’s cybercrime bill, among other things. Less than a month later, on August 12, the King approved of the bill, which came into effect in mid-September. The swift passage of legislation raised concerns about transparency and participation, as neither a broad public debate, nor dialogue with civil society organizations, had taken place.
This may have been motivated by previous attempts to amend the original 2015 legislation. Indeed, the government had already proposed amendments to the law in 2017, with the announcement at the time sparking widespread criticism, and ultimately leading the government to withdraw the proposed amendments. According to a ministry spokesperson in 2018, the legislation would only be resubmitted after engaging with civil society representatives and experts. One can only speculate on the reasons why this promise was not kept for the 2023 law. Over the past few years, Jordan has been criticized for increasingly restrictive laws and public policies—Freedom House categorized it as a “non-free” country in its 2023 evaluation of political rights and civil liberties. Jordan would have surely benefited from a public engagement with cybersecurity experts and civil society, to demonstrate transparency and good governance.
On the 2023 Cybercrime Law
The new cybercrime law, or Law (17) of 2023, was passed as an amendment to the Information Systems and Cyber Crime Law No. 27 of 2015, which was later repealed as per Article 40 of the new law. The 2023 law consists of 41 articles, compared to the 17 in the 2015 version.
Articles 14-20 in the 2023 law carry a punishment of up to three years imprisonment (Article 17) or a fine of up to 50,000 JOD (approximately $70,000 in Article 20) for content deemed to “expose public morals” (Article 14), “stir up strife” (Article 17), “insult religion” (Article 17), constitute “character assassination” (Article 16), “calls for or justification of violence” (Article 17), “false news” (Article 15), defamation (Article 20), or hate speech (Article 17).
Such formulations restrict the expression of opinions online and blatantly lack a necessary definition, thereby failing human rights standards
Such formulations restrict the expression of opinions online and blatantly lack a necessary definition, thereby failing human rights standards. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Jordan is a state party, as well as Article 15 of the Jordanian Constitution, guarantee the freedom of opinion and expression for everyone in speech, writing, or other forms of expression. According to the UN Human Rights Committee, a restricting norm must be “formulated with sufficient precision to enable an individual to regulate his or her conduct accordingly and it must be made accessible to the public. A law may not confer unfettered discretion for the restriction of freedom of expression on those charged with its execution.” Even if some of the terms may be used and somewhat be more defined in other laws, without a precise definition of the punishable act in the 2023 law, and with such severe penalties, one potential consequence is that the general public refrains from expressing their opinion, even if this is not intended by the legislator. This is especially problematic in the case of Article 15 of the 2023 law, which criminalizes sending or resending “fake news targeting national security and community peace”. If the crime is directed at a state authority, it will be prosecuted “without the need to file a complaint or claim a personal right.” Any critic of public authorities could therefore be automatically charged and convicted if the content is deemed to be fake.
Article 33 in of the 2023 cybercrime law allows for a public prosecutor or court to make websites, social media platforms, or people in charge of public online accounts “remove, block, stop, disable, register or intercept the data path or […] content, or prevent access to it, or temporarily ban the user or publisher […].” The provision effectively allows for the judiciary to block or control social media accounts without clarifying the legal procedure necessary to impose these sanctions. Jordan already bans around 300 websites, social media platforms, and applications. It recently blocked the widely popular satirical news website Al-Hudood (“Boundaries” in English), and banned TikTok in December 2022, after footage of protests was spread on the platform, stating that TikTok “failed to address posts inciting violence and chaos,” according to Jordanian authorities.
Impact on investments and e-commerce
Banning social media platforms is also expected to have an economic impact on 6.61 million Jordanian users, accounting for 58.4 percent of the total population. Such platforms are widely used by influencers, small business owners, and journalists for a living. Deliberate internet outages around the world cost the global economy $24.67 billion in 2021. Economic experts highlighted that the law does not support the kingdom’s economic ambitions to achieve a modern and advanced business environment, or to attract foreign investments, with Jordan’s unemployment rate currently standing at 22.6 percent of the total population, according to SMEX.
For example, Article 35 of the 2023 law considers the IP address as “a means of proof before the judicial authorities,” even though it is not associated with a person, but with a device. As this hinders the work of technological companies and complicates means to protect the confidentiality of data, Jordan Open Society Association warned of the law’s negative impact on e-commerce and asked to amend at least six articles (namely, Articles 2, 3B, 6, 8A, 11, and 12) that harm developing the information technology sector and digital entrepreneurship.
Four activists and journalists were arrested one day after the new bill was approved, though on the basis of the 2015 law. Ahmed Hasan al-Zoubi, a journalist and media owner, received a sentence of a year in prison for allegedly “inciting sectarian and racial strife and inciting conflict between the sectors of the nation.” In December 2022, during the strike of truck drivers in the Ma’an Governorate protesting the rise in fuel prices, al-Zoubi had criticized the state handling of the protests in a post on Facebook. The same protests led to the TikTok ban.
An increasingly restrictive environment for online expression and activity can be observed across the Middle East and North Africa. Tunisia’s President Kais Saied issued the highly criticized Decree-Law 54 in 2022; a court in Lebanon sentenced journalist Dima Sadek to jail for having criticized a political figure on Twitter; and a new draft cybercrime law has been reintroduced to the parliament in Iraq. Although human rights law generally allows for restrictions of the freedom of expression under specific circumstances, the principle of legality requires the restrictive law to bear clear and precise definitions, as well as proportionate sanctions. So long as these criteria are not met, the laws effectively prevent individuals from freely expressing themselves online, sharing opinions and information, or else they will face severe sanctions. In Jordan, the 2023 law ultimately also tarnishes the country’s vision toward a more progressive and equal state.
Afnan Abu Yahia is a Palestinian-Jordanian journalist and researcher, mainly interested in covering civil, political and digital rights issues.
Valeska Heldt is a lawyer by training, currently working as a Research Fellow at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) Rule of Law Programme for the Middle East & North Africa based in Beirut, Lebanon.
This analysis was originally published as a feature piece in Issue 3 of the Rule of Law Developments in the Middle East and North Africa newsletter, produced by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Rule of Law Programme Middle East & North Africa and TIMEP.