Journalists, activists denounce ‘draconian’ draft cybercrime

(File photo: Jordan News)
AMMAN — On the first day of the Lower House’s extraordinary session on Sunday, deputies voted to refer the draft cybercrime law for the year 2023 to its legal committee, despite calls by several lawmakers to reject the draft and return it to the government. They criticized the “draconian” draft for putting restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of expression.اضافة اعلان

The draft law has come under attack by journalists and legal experts for imposing unusually heavy fines and for using ambiguous language with some describing it as a penal code.  

Unconstitutional ambiguityYahya Shuqair, an expert on media laws and freedoms, told Jordan News that some articles in the draft law contain phrases that have ambiguous meanings, such as the term “false or fake news” and “character assassination”, among others, making it impossible know what these terms entail, and where to draw the line between what is an opinion and what is slander. He said that what is at stake is freedom of expression, and that is why criminal intent must be clarified so that a person is able to predict the consequences of his or her action.

Shuqair said that all laws contain a commitment to the principle of single not collective punishments and penalties but the draft law is imposing at least two punishments simultaneously (fine and jail). In his opinion, by doing so the government is seeking to muzzle Jordanians, under the guise of regulating cyberspace.

He said the draft law contradicts the message of reform “and if this law is adopted, Jordan will be among the countries that are classified as enemies of freedom of the press and free speech.”

Shuqair pointed out that even UNESCO does not use the term “false news” which was popularized by former US President Donald Trump, and it is especially ambiguous in its meaning. He said that the term was added to Article 11 of the draft law, which deals with defamation, libel and contempt – and it is unclear where false news fits in relation to these terms.

The draft law also criminalizes “character assassination” and imposes a penalty of imprisonment from three months to three years and a fine of JD25,000 to JD50,000. The article also allows for the detention of the defendant, following a complaint, regardless of whether the court finds the defendant not responsible or innocent. Fines imposed would be directed to the state Treasury rather than benefiting the victim.

Shuqair added that all punitive laws in Jordan follow the principle of the progression of punishment from imprisonment or a fine, to both penalties, allowing the judge to choose the punishment according to his discretion, but in the draft law, the penalty is mandatory imprisonment and a fine, which is unheard of.

Shuqair hoped that the House of Representatives would not pass the draft law because it would hurt Jordan’s international reputation and its ranking.

He said that there is precedence when in 1997 the temporary Press and Publications law No 27 was approved, leading to the closure of 13 newspapers. But the High Court of Justice at that time ruled that the law was unconstitutional and the law was revoked.

Effects on social media
Founder and director of the Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists, Nidal Mansour, told Jordan News that the initial reading of the draft law shows its expansion in custodial penalties, in addition to hefty financial penalties in a way that threatens freedom of expression and the press.

Mansour opposed placing restrictions on freedom of expression and the media, noting that many of the legal articles contained in the draft law allow for arrest and imprisonment, while imposing financial penalties of up to JD50,000.

He said that the media body and users of social media platforms have struggled over the past years to abolish Article 11 of the Cybercrime Law in force so far, which has led to the arrest and imprisonment of hundreds accused of libel and defamation. He noted that the draft law did not cancel that article.

He said that the draft law gave the public prosecutor the right to initiate legal prosecution for libel and slander crimes without the need to receive a complaint or a claim for personal damage in cases where state authorities, official bodies, public administrations or even a public employee are involved.  

Mansour stressed that social media platforms have become an integral part of people's lives, and essential tools for expressing opinions, exploring people's views and their participation in decision-making, and that imposing restrictions on them limits dialogue in the public space, and contradicts the Jordanian state's orientations towards political reform.

Martial lawMP Saleh Al-Armouti said that the draft law is controversial with articles that contradict provisions in the Constitution which guarantees freedom of opinion and expression. He said that draft law should not have been submitted to an extraordinary session in the first place.

He said such laws restrict freedom of expression and aim at “terrifying the citizen” by threatening hefty fines and imprisonment. He added that the government submitted this draft law as we are on the verge of a new phase in our political parties’ life. “This reflects a great contradiction, and this law is worse than a martial law,” Armouti said.

Chief Editor of news website Basil Al-Akour, told Jordan News that the draft law, if it passes, will restrict the entire Jordanian society, but the press will be the most affected. “The application of this law will lead to a state of regression in press freedom,” he said.

Former MP Rula Al-Hroub told Jordan News that if the law proceeds in this way, it will affect the work of political parties and activists, and “will usher us into a phase worse than martial law.”

She emphasized that whoever drafted the law wants to thwart the king's plan for political modernization and thwart political parties.

She said that the draft law constituted a setback for freedom of opinion and expression and freedom of electronic and digital media, and it is a stab at the system of political modernization and promises of partisan and democratic life and elected governments.

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