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Media watchdog says hate speech law could harm freedom of expression

By JT - Jan 11,2017 - Last updated at Jan 11,2017

AMMAN — The Centre for Defending Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ) on Wednesday urged the government to engage with experts and civil society representatives before moving forward with legislation related to social media and hate speech.

The centre warned of the risk of the government hindering freedom of expression under the pretext of protecting society from hate speech. 

In a statement, the centre said it does not know exactly what the government intends, or with whom it has consulted while considering the bill.

The centre said it is unclear whether the new legislation would focus on social media websites or hate speech per se, or what the basis for such law would be. 

Last week, Minister of State for Media Affairs Mohammad Momani said the government is exploring how to address hate speech on social media, adding that it is considering a new law to prevent social media networks being used to spread violence.

The government’s move came on the heels of comments and posts on social media directed at the Jordanian victims of the Istanbul nightclub attack, slandering them and their families.

CDFJ said it opposes a bill on social media websites, or one that deals with hate speech, the statement said, maintaining, however, that the centre also rejects hate speech and incitement towards violence. 

The centre argued that existing legislation is sufficient to prosecute hate speech, and pointed to the recent case of 12 defendants accused of using social media to offend the victims of Istanbul’s recent terror attack and their families.

Prior to that case, several people were prosecuted after the murder of Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar, the CDFJ said, noting that this “clearly” shows the current laws provide for the investigation and prosecution of alleged violators. 

The Penal Code contains articles criminalising acts like incitement of hatred, promoting sedition, insulting employees or individuals, blasphemy against  Abrahamic faiths and undermining the regime, or portraying Jordanians in a manner which violates their dignity, according to the statement. 

Moreover, there are laws on cyber crime, combating terrorism, online transactions and violating the sanctity of courts, in addition to legislation governing media outlets, which all show that there is no need for new laws, CDFJ said. 

Any new legislation, it argued, could be used by the government to restrict freedom of expression, especially since there is no clear definition of hate speech, even on an international level. 

A new law could be used to pressure critics of government policies or its opponents, the centre warned.

Several other bills have been previously used to impose restrictions most recently the Press and Publications Law, which requires news websites to be licensed, unlike in most countries around the world, CDFJ said.

Additionally, Article 11 of the Electronic Crimes Law allows for the suspension and even imprisonment of journalists, and was expanded to include users of social media websites. 

Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter allow users to report content, especially hate speech and incitement to violence, the centre noted, adding that the government could use these provisions to issue complaints to combat and minimise violations. 

In the statement, CDFJ President Nidal Mansour urged the government to hold a meeting to discuss international experiences and best practices in combating hate speech on social media websites. 

He warned against rushing to endorse new legislation, saying that “experience proves this does not solve the problem”.

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