Photo: The king of Jordan, Wikimedia Commons
On 12 August approved Jordan's King Abdullah II approved legislation that puts strong controls on what Jordanians can say and do on the internet. This law, previously passed by the Jordanian parliament and senate, will be officially implemented in a few weeks. Although pro-government lawmakers approved the legislation, called the 'cybercrime law' is called, describe as essential for exercising control over extortionists and online crime, experts argue that the law is intended to increase state control over the internet, violating fundamental rights and freedoms such as freedom of expression, the right to information and the right to privacy.
This article examines the context, content and criticism of Jordan's new laws against cybercrime.
Jordan's political context
Jordan's latest method of curtailing 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 many 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 for the creation of a new governing body, the National Security Council, which includes key ministers, the heads of the king's security apparatus, and others appointed by the king. This council has far-reaching powers and is described as "a fourth branch of government" that can bypass the council of ministers or parliament. In addition, because of constitutional amendments, King Abdullah II has the power to bypass the Council of Ministers in appointing powerful politicians.
Jordan's institutional set-up has repeatedly proved detrimental to its citizens. In recent years, Jordanians have faced increasing repression of civil space. Citizens who protest peacefully, for example, risk being persecuted and intimidated by the authorities. In 2022 stated Human Rights Watch that journalists and protesters are increasingly targeted by the Jordanian authorities, who are conducting a "systematic campaign to clamp down on peaceful opposition and silence critical voices". State control of civil space is also increasingly evident on social media: Jordan has banned TikTok and social media blackouts occur regularly.
What does the law against cybercrime entail?
The recently passed legislation, which contains 41 articles, is to replace Jordan's 2015 law against cybercrime. The new law will justify time in jail and other penalties for a range of activities, including:
- using tools such as VPNs for anonymity;
- promote, incite, aid or incite immorality;
- spreading fake news;
- undermining national unity;
- provoke disagreement;
- damage someone's reputation;
- distributing pornographic content;
- show contempt for religions, and
- offending law enforcers.
What makes this law so harmful?
There are several reasons why the law seriously violates international human rights norms and principles.
First, the law uses many broad and vague terms, allowing authorities to interpret the law as they see fit and use it arbitrarily to suppress individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Second, the ban on insulting law enforcement officials makes it dangerous for individuals to publicly criticise officials, something essential to a democratic culture.
Third, restrictions 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, particularly vulnerable are under the cybercrime law. For instance, bans on pornographic content and "promoting immorality" are likely to target harmless content related to gender, sexuality and LGBTQ rights. Moreover, restrictions on online anonymity may be even more damaging to LGBTQ people for whom anonymity may be necessary to ensure their safety.
What are the reactions to the law?
Before the law was passed, 14 organisations, including Human Rights Watch, released a statement in which they called for the law to be scrapped, arguing that it would "undermine freedom of expression online, threaten internet users' right to anonymity and introduce new powers to control social media that would pave the way for an alarming increase in online censorship".
The United States, one of Jordan's key allies, has also publicly criticised the law. A spokesman for the US State Department said that "this type of law, with vague definitions and concepts, could undermine Jordan's own economic and political reform efforts and further reduce the civic space available to journalists, bloggers and other members of civil society in Jordan". Jordanian opposition and rights organisations have also raised concerns about the effects of the law: the deputy leader of the opposition stated that "Jordan will become a big prison".
It is clear that Jordan's new law against cybercrime further impedes the path to democracy. Not only does this law fundamentally harm citizens' rights and freedoms, it also puts vulnerable communities at direct risk. Since the US is Jordan's main donor, it should do more than just voice its concerns: possibly by setting stricter criteria for the huge amount of military aid it gives to Jordan. The EU also has a role in protecting Jordanian citizens as it is also a key partner of the country. Jordan's allies should not prioritise strategic military deals over the security of millions of people. In other words, the Jordanian government must be accountable to those on whom it depends most.