Jordan: Government should withdraw amendments to cybercrimes law ahead of UN review

Proposed changes to a national cybercrimes law will deal a devastating blow to freedom of expression in Jordan, Amnesty International has warned, ahead of a review of the country’s human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva tomorrow.
The amendments include criminalizing hate speech using an overly broad definition of the offence and introducing tougher penalties, including lengthier prison terms for online crimes. A vote to pass these changes can be scheduled at any time.
“The proposed changes to Jordan’s already flawed cybercrimes law are extremely worrying. Instead of taking steps to protect people’s rights online the authorities appear to be moving backwards, introducing changes that would further suppress freedom of expression,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director.
“The Jordanian authorities should be working to eliminate all repressive elements from the current cybercrimes law to bring it in line with international law, not expanding them to further restrict people’s online activities.”
Amendments to Jordan’s 2015 cybercrimes law were proposed by the government in 2017. In September 2018, the parliament referred the amendments to the parliamentary legal committee for discussion before a vote is scheduled. The vote could take place in parliament any time in the next weeks and the government can also decide to withdraw the proposed amendments.
One of the proposed amendments is the addition of hate speech as a criminal offence punishable with a prison term of up to three years and a fine of up to 10,000 JD ($14,094). However, the draft bill includes a vague definition of hate speech as “any statement or act that would incite discord, religious, sectarian, racial or ethnic strife or discrimination between individuals or groups”.
Such a broad definition could easily include things that are protected by the right to freedom of expression, such as the right to make comments online that might be considered highly offensive but that do not amount to hate speech.
The draft cybercrimes bill also proposes criminalizing distribution of articles that amount to slander. This would mean that people could be imprisoned simply for sharing an article that is alleged to include slander on social media.
Last week King Abdullah wrote an article in the Jordan Times emphasizing the need for new laws to “combat rumours and misinformation, counter hate speech,” appearing to signal his support for the proposed amendments. The King also warned: “Anyone who offends a Jordanian — whether from my bigger Jordanian family or my immediate family — offends me personally”.
Article 195 of the Jordanian Penal Code punishes “insulting the king” with up to three years imprisonment.
“Jordan’s authorities have an appalling track record when it comes to silencing critics both on and offline. The Jordanian authorities must repeal all laws that criminalize the exercise of the right to freedom of expression,” said Heba Morayef.
The UN Human Rights Council report on Jordan ahead of its universal periodic review on 8 November 2018 noted that freedom of expression in Jordan had suffered a severe regression in recent months.
International human rights standards put a high value on uninhibited expression in the context of “public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions.” The UN Human Rights Committee has been clear that the “mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties.” Amnesty International opposes laws prohibiting insult or disrespect of heads of state or public figures, as well as laws criminalizing defamation, whether of public figures or private individuals, which should be treated as a matter for civil litigation.