Following the detention of two journalists on cybercrimes charges, the IPI global network urges Jordanian authorities to immediately cease the harassment of the media. The country’s cybercrime law should urgently be revised to ensure it can no longer be used to restrict the work of the press.
The recent detention of two journalists at the airport in Amman in separate cases involving the country’s repressive cybercrime law has put a spotlight on growing threats to press freedom in Jordan and sparked renewed calls by journalists and rights groups to amend the controversial legislation to prevent further harassment and abuse.
On March 6, journalist Taghreed Risheq was detained by airport authorities for nearly 12 hours for a tweet she published this January. Risheq, who is the Arabic media manager for Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), was informed that a defamation complaint had been filed against her for a violation of Article 11 of Jordan’s cybercrime law.
On March 8, Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, director-general of non-profit news organization Community Media Network, was detained in the Amman airport over an investigative article he published in 2020 about a Jordanian-American investor who was jailed for holding a stolen cheque. Upon being detained, he was informed by airport police that a defamation complaint had been made against him about this article, also based on a violation of Article 11 of the cybercrime law.
Their cases are the latest in a spate of detentions and arrests of the country’s journalists under Jordan’s restrictive cybercrimes law. Thousands of cases have been brought against journalists, activists, and citizens under Article 11 of this law since 2019, according to a report by the Middle East Eye.
Article 11 contains sweeping provisions prohibiting anyone from posting or reposting statements online that could be deemed defamatory or that denigrates anyone. In 2018, lawmakers further amended the law to include prohibitions against “hate speech”, broadly defined as content that can fuel “religious, sectarian, ethnic or regional sedition” or that spreads “rumours” intended to cause harm. The amendments sparked outcry from rights groups who claimed the provisions are aimed at censoring social media and repressing journalists and political activists.
Risheq, who spoke to IPI, denies that her tweet was defamatory and says she was simply expressing her opinion. In her tweet, she criticized an op-ed written by a pro-government reporter.
Neither Risheq nor Kuttab was aware that a complaint had been made until being detained by airport authorities. Both now face charges in court. If found guilty, they could be punished with fines and a minimum of three months in prison.
“The restriction of journalists is a bad sign for a country that seeks to reform”, Kuttab told IPI. “No journalist should ever be detained or imprisoned for what they publish.”
Press freedom under siege
The detentions of Risheq and Kuttab have put a spotlight on the broader pattern of government harassment of the country’s independent journalists and political activists alongside the use of increasingly draconian laws limiting criticism of the regime and restricting freedom of the press.
Although press freedom is formally guaranteed in Jordan’s constitution, the 1998 Press and Publications Law has been amended multiple times over the past decade to give authorities increasing powers to censor and block online news sites and internet content, including through strict licensing requirements for online publications.
In addition, the country’s penal code has been used to punish journalists and political activists for expressing opinions deemed critical of the regime or insulting the royal family. IPI recently called on Jordanian authorities to repeal the lèse-majesté law — the crime of insulting the king — under Article 195 of Jordan’s penal code, which has been misused to stifle criticism of the government and the political discussions in the country.
In March 2020, lawmakers in Jordan also introduced a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, invoking a 1992 Defense Law that has given authorities sweeping powers to gag the press. Multiple journalists have since been arrested for their COVID-19 coverage, including Jamal Haddad, an editor of news website Al-Wakaai, who was arrested for reporting that Jordan had received a supply of COVID-19 vaccines and that some senior officials had been vaccinated. Haddad was accused of “endangering public security and causing sedition and public disorder”.
Journalists demand authorities respect press freedom commitments
Following public outcry over the detentions of Risheq and Kuttab, the government last week issued new guidelines forbidding authorities from arresting individuals in the airport in connection with a cybercrime charge.
Yet opponents say this is not enough. Hundreds of journalists and activists have signed a petition calling on lawmakers to revise Article 11 of the cybercrime law and to uphold press freedom guarantees in Jordan’s own constitution.
“We are in a country where the constitution guarantees your freedom of speech”, Risheq said. “It should be respected and applied.”
According to Kuttab, Jordanian authorities should also make efforts to ensure the country upholds its international commitments to respect freedom of the press. As a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other regional treaties, Kuttab said, Jordan must do more to ensure it is creating an environment conducive to press freedom.
“The country’s top priority must be to distance the security institution from the media world”, he wrote in an article published in Amman Net the day following his detention.
While security and stability are important, he wrote that “in the digital age, security is not brought about by blocking websites and detaining journalists while insisting on a single governmental narrative instead of a pluralistic inclusive approach.”
IPI also urges the government to amend the legislation. “The recent detentions of journalists at Amman airport are highly concerning and underscore the urgent need to revise Article 11 of Jordan’s cybercrime law, which has been used to clamp down on critical speech and which undermines the work of independent media,” IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said.
“The revision of this law must be made in accordance with international standards and should be undertaken as part of a wider reform of Jordanian media law in close consultation with the media and press organizations. The central goal of this reform process must be the creation of a legal and regulatory framework in which Jordanian media are able to work independently and hold those in power to account without fear of retaliation.
“In the meantime, all harassment of journalists under the cybercrimes law — not only at Amman airport — must cease and the charges against Taghreed Risheq and Daoud Kuttab must be dropped,” Griffen said.