Despite widespread concerns by rights groups and experts, the Jordanian government is pushing ahead with a sweeping new cybercrime bill that criminalizes the publication of “false news” online and introduces a range of measures that can be abused by authorities to target journalists and critics. As the bill moves through parliament this week for approval, the IPI global network calls on lawmakers to reject this legislation and ensure that any laws affecting freedom of the press are developed in close consultation with journalists and civil society.
The legislation was passed by the House of Representatives last week amid sharp domestic and international criticism over a number of provisions that could hamper online speech and shield public officials from scrutiny. It is expected to be approved by the Senate and then signed into law by King Abdullah II this week.
The legislation criminalizes the use of the internet by anyone who disseminates “false news”, along with a range of other ill-defined and overly broad materials, such content that “promotes immorality”, “undermines national unity”, “stirs up strife,” or that “disrespects religions.” The penalties include fines of up to 63,000 euros and up to three years in prison.
The measures also prohibit the use of virtual private networks (VPN), a tool often used to circumvent internet censorship and to access blocked websites. The use of such technologies is punishable by at least six months in jail or fines of up to EUR 32,000.
This legislation comes as a growing number of governments are abusing domestic cybercrime laws to target journalists, as part of a wider pattern of “lawfare” against the press. Often enacted under the guise of combating terrorism, the spread of “disinformation,” religious hatred, and other forms of harmful speech, cybercrime laws in practice have become much-abused catch-alls to punish critics and journalists.
The country’s existing cybercrime law is already being abused to target journalists since it was enacted in 2015. The Middle East Eye reports that more than 2,000 cases were brought by authorities in 2020, often against political activists and journalists. During the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists were targeted for reporting on access to vaccines, and recently, satirical news website Al-Hudood was blocked in the country.
“IPI is deeply concerned about many provisions in this cybercrime legislation that can be abused to target and punish journalists and critics”, IPI Executive Board Chair Khadija Patel said.
“We are also concerned by the lack of public participation in the drafting of this legislation. We therefore urge lawmakers to reject this legislation and to ensure that any laws or regulations affecting media freedom and access to information are developed in full consultation with journalists and civil society.”