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‘New cybercrime law will restrict media freedom, public opinion’

By Mohammad Ghazal - Nov 21,2018 - Last updated at Nov 21,2018

AMMAN — While a general consensus has been reached on the need to combat hate speech, concerns have been raised over what one might end up in jail for in an interpretation of "hate speech" under the new cybercrime draft law.

The latest version of the bill, which has undergone several changes in its articles since 2010, includes an article that criminalises hate speech and the spreading of rumours, defining hate speech as “each statement or act that is prone to fuel religious, sectarian, ethnic or regional sedition; calling for violence and justifying it; or spreading rumours against people with the aim of causing them, as a result, physical harm or damage to their assets or reputation”.

Experts and lawyers called it a “very loose” definition that opens the door for interpretations, noting that it would result in restricting media freedoms and reducing freedom of expression. 

They called for the immediate withdrawal of the bill, which they labelled as “backwards”.

“The definition of hate speech is lost, and left to interpretations… If someone posts a comment on his or her Facebook account cracking a joke… he or she can be easily sued by anyone who feels harmed by the post,” Khaled Al Qudah, a Jordan Press Association council member, told The Jordan Times on Wednesday.

“The bill criminalises spreading rumours, and sometimes the government is the source of rumours when it resorts to trial balloons to test public opinion,” he said, adding that the bill in its current version would only restrict media freedoms and freedoms of expression among Jordanians who, for example, would want to openly express their viewpoints about certain violations, maltreatment or malpractices at any public agency.

Experts said that acts or speech that promote hate are already punishable by other laws, such as the Penal Code, the Telecommunication Law, the Information Technology Law, the Anti-Terrorism Law and other pieces of legislation that criminalise acts of sedition, incitement, slander, defamation and blackmail, among other crimes.

“The cybercrime draft law only stiffens penalties on some acts and deeds more than the existing legislation… I believe the number of Jordanians who could be detained for expressing their opinion could largely increase due to this very vague definition of hate speech,” Qudah added.

MP Hayat Al Musimi (Zarqa) slammed the bill, which she said would intimidate Jordanians and media personnel and dissuade them from expressing their opinions freely.

“The draft bill is currently being reviewed by the legal committee and it is expected to be presented to us for a vote before the end of this year and during the current session,” she told The Jordan Times on Wednesday.

She said the bill would “make criticising the government” punishable, which would limit freedoms, adding that if the bill was passed “most people would prefer to remain silent rather than be active citizens who criticise authorities to achieve what is better for the country. They will be afraid of being sued and going to jail”.

The bill stipulates a penalty of imprisonment of no less than a year and no more than three years and a fine of between JD5,000 and JD10,000 for people who publish or share whatever can be described as hate speech on social media, websites or any other platforms.

It also stipulates an imprisonment of no less than three months and no more than three years and a fine between JD1,000 and JD3,000 for people who use the Internet and online means to blackmail others to do things or abstain from doing things against their will.

 

Concerns beyond freedom of expression

 

For lawyer Israa Mahadeen, who is head of Karak Castle Centre for Consultations and Training, what is serious about the bill is not only the broad definition of hate speech, but also other articles that stipulate that anyone who deliberately sends, forwards or re-shares information or data that entail slander or defamation or libel using the Internet, websites or any information systems could be imprisoned from three months to six months and pays a fee of no less than JD100 and no more than JD2,000.

“Under the cybercrime law, anyone who posts something on social media, for example, and gets sued, is considered guilty until proven innocent, unlike in other crimes where suspects are considered innocent until proven guilty,” Mahadeen told The Jordan Times on Wednesday.

“People will be punished for simply posting things that fall under the definition of hate speech… if someone cracks a joke, it might be interpreted as scorning of others,” she said.

Another major point of concern for Mahadeen is that the bill gives the concerned authorities the power of law enforcement and the right to search any device to look for evidence of any violation of the law.

“This means that concerned authorities have the right to confiscate the device of the accused, including his/her mobile and search for anything that could be considered as hate speech. They might search the defendant’s laptop, mobile, PC… if someone for example shared jokes or videos that entails suspected hate speech with the accused, he or she could be held liable for having them saved in his/her mobile even if they were not shared with others,” Mahadeen said.

“This is a violation of several international laws that stress on people’s privacy. As the law includes many flaws, it should be withdrawn from the Lower House,” she added.

The proposed law stiffens the penalty for those who intentionally hack a website or any information system through any means to a prison term of no less than three months and no more than a year and a fine ranging between JD500 and JD1,000.

It also authorises the competent attorney general to stop or deactivate any information system or website that is used to perpetrate any crime mentioned in the bill, excluding licenced websites under the Telecommunications Law, whose violations are subject to accountability under that law.

“We do not need more laws that restrict media freedoms and freedom of expression. This bill is a disaster and a huge number of people can be arrested, anytime, if the law is passed. There is a need for media literacy and raising awareness first and not rushing immediately to penalising individuals,” Qudah said. 

Lawyer Abdel Rahman Al Sharari echoed similar remarks. “The draft bill will penalise people for posts that are considered by some as harmful, even if no actual harm occurs,” Sharari told The Jordan Times on Wednesday. 

“Laws need to be simple and understood by the public, this is a basic rule. This law is vague and even if someone is merely joking, he/she could be sued and face imprisonment or fines,” he said, stressing that “if we want a democratic society, we need to allow more freedoms”.

 

Deputies ‘enthusiastic’

 

The experts agreed that protecting individuals from e-crimes, curbing rumours and seeking to combat hate speech are all good causes, but the current bill does not serve these objectives. 

In spite of opposition and rejection of the bill, MP Musimi does not seem optimistic about its withdrawal.

“I sense that the majority of lawmakers are in favour of having the bill endorsed as is, and one of the reasons about their enthusiasm is that many of them say they were blackmailed and defamed by many on social media and news websites over the past years,” the lawmaker added.

In spite of several attempts by The Jordan Times, the government was not available for comment.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Omar Razzaz said the government would not withdraw the bill from the Lower House as it addresses important issues such as blackmail, fraud, pornography, hate speech and character assassination. In an interview with Al Mamlaka TV, he said it is the Lower House’s responsibility to make any amendments to the bill.

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