In the past few weeks, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed the significant increase in criticism of the Rifai government. It is a government that has been around for nine months, and has probably garnered more criticism than any government I have ever seen. It is, however, an election year, and thus every little issue is on the upward path towards politicization.
August was a month that saw two major decisions impacting the cyber sphere in unique and different ways. First, the decision of the government to cut off access to a great number of websites for its employees. The government’s reasoning claims the Internet can be a time-waster for public sector employees. According to a study that was conducted (a government study) public employees browsed 70 million websites during working hours, with only 13,000 of those sites being relevant to their jobs. Each lost hour of Internet browsing cost the government, thus the tax payer, about JD70 million a year.
The only people who really cared about this decision were not proponents of free speech (and there are few of them residing in Jordan) but the online newspapers who felt this was targeting them. These newspapers have been at odds with the government for the past two years, and every move the government has sought to make has only served to aggravate the situation and even increase the number of these online papers they so readily fear are beyond their borders of control. Then again, these newspapers also need some growing up to. Had they really been the target of any significant political ploy they would have simply been shut down, jailed or been banned in Jordan. History has proven that much when it comes to the manner in which Jordanian governments deal with the media sector. Moreover, as players in the political opposition arena of this country, one would think they would be concerned about increasing the performance of government employees that they so often complain about – they failed miserably at countering the government’s arguments, which, be they genuine or not, do make perfect sense. And this is to say nothing of the fact that the list of websites banned includes Petra news, which is the government’s own news agency as well as the government’s Al Rai newspaper, the most widely read daily.
Then comes the new cyber crimes law.
In the past few weeks I’ve been asked for my opinion on the law and I have to admit it took me some time to form one. Having no legal background, I am not keen on jumping to conclusions without being presented the facts first and carefully examining the arguments put forth by both proponents and opponents of the law. In this case, I was invited, along with a significant number of bloggers and online notables to attend one of several meetings with the minister of ICT, Marwan Jumah, who along with a legal aid, presented the law and, to his credit, tackled whatever questions, issues or concerns we had to offer. At the time, no one knew anything about the law so it was quite difficult to effectively argue the points, this is to say nothing of the absent legal background. However, to their credit, the concerns of those presented were taken in to consideration and proper amendments were even made to the memorandum accompanying the actual law before it was presented to the cabinet.
That said. Here’s what I generally think:
I have always stood opposed to the passage of any temporary law that is not under the specific definition of a state of emergency, which the constitution allows for. I generally deem to be these laws to be unconstitutional, to say nothing of the fact that they are shoved down the throats of a quietly consenting population in the absence of any oversight from a representative body of the people – be it in the form of a parliament or a legal association. In the 270 something days that the parliament has been dissolved, the Rifai government has passed 34 temporary laws. That’s an average of about 3 to 4 new laws every single month. Are we to believe these were all absolutely necessary? That none of them could wait for the next parliament, which HM King Abdullah had already ordered in the very letter of appointment of the Prime Minister? Moreover, have we not learned from past infringements on the democratic process? For context, between the 1930â€™s till 1999 when HM King Hussein passed away, about 60 temporary laws were issued during that span of 70 some years. Whereas, between 1999 and 2005, over 200 temporary laws were imposed in the span of just 6 years, and between 2001 and 2003, specifically, 230 of those laws came about. Some of those laws sought to encourage economic development, like the investment promotion law for example, while others sought to infringe and limit our constitutional rights, such as the press and publication law amendments, etc.
This new cyber crime law is aimed at tackling specific issues related to online crimes, such as hacking, identity theft, financial transaction crimes, etc. And that’s all perfectly fine. The ICT ministry made the argument that this law was “urgent” enough to pass as a temporary law because of the number of cyber related crimes that are being presented before the judiciary every month. However, I am inclined to believe that given the fact that the Internet has been around for over 15 years in Jordan, it is unlikely that the government has just now noticed that crimes concerning its citizens are taking place online and there is a need for various protections. So it is quite difficult to believe that argument.
Yet, the real concern here is that in the mix of this law are several articles that tackle the issue of speech, and this is what has most online persons riled up. To quote the Committee to Protect Journalists:
In all, the law provides authorities with sweeping powers to restrict the flow of information and limit public debate. Article 8 penalizes “sending or posting data or information via the Internet or any information system that involves defamation or contempt or slander,” without defining what constitutes those crimes. Article 12 penalizes obtaining “data or information not available to the public, concerning national security or foreign relations of the kingdom, public safety or the national economy” from a website without a permit. Article 13 allows for law enforcement officers to search the offices of websites and access their computers without prior approval from public prosecutors. [source
My take on these specific articles is quite straightforward: the government shouldn’t be in the business of regulating speech. It shouldn’t be in the business of defining it, and it certainly shouldn’t be in the business of ill-defining it. The above articles can be spun in various ways by the government, but, at the end of the day, that’s exactly what they do: regulate speech. The ministry of ICT has also emphasized the inclusion of the word “intent” as a safeguard for the citizen. In other words, the prosecutor must prove intent to successfully prosecute. Again, I am not a legal authority, but I would assume that intent is a broad term that, despite it’s legal definitions, is broad enough to be abused by the very system that created it. Given the precedence of infringements on free speech in Jordan, one can safely assume that intent will be used more as a subjective legal tool to prosecute and convict, rather than protect the defendant.
At the same time, I am inclined to believe that the government is not folly enough to create laws that deter much needed high-level investments in our ICT sector. In a post Maktoob era, eyes are turning to Jordan as a place filled with ICT potential; creating such controversial laws will not improve chances of investment, but rather ruin them. This argument was articulated several times by various industry players back in January when the Cessation Court passed that controversial ruling that extended the ridiculous press publication law to apply to the online world.
And giving the authorities the free reign to storm offices of websites without any legal provisions or approval? Are we suddenly living under martial law?
The government would be wise to revise the law and remove the aforementioned articles. Whether it is their intention to infringe on speech or not is not the issue. This is a law that is likely to set the tone for the local new media for the next decade. It will likely outlast any threats the governments perceives today, and be applied in unending capacity – generating a controversy, every single time. The mere approval of the law made international headlines and will likely place Jordan firmly on the Internet Enemies list for the first time – putting out that beacon of hope we once took pride in throughout a region of highly regulated and censored Internet.
I am generally sick and tired of these middle-ground approaches when it comes to speech in the Kingdom, or lack there of. Laws are constructed to firmly place the citizen in either a constant state of fear through uncertainties, or in a bubble of complacency. These laws, especially the temporary ones, are designed to create an entangled web of legal restrictions that one can only conclude serve no other purpose than to be used against the citizen. The more laws that come out of this nature, the more arenas of speech they seek to cover, the more our constitutional rights are eroded, to say nothing of our human rights as set forth in the universal declaration of human rights, which Jordan is a signatory of.
It is disheartening to see that a country King Abdullah once declared to be the next haven for IT development, a country where the “sky’s the limit” when it comes to speech, has now set the stage for an environment where those very ideals and ambitions are dismantled in exchange for – what? Silencing the masses? Keeping them subservient? In an era where information is unstoppable? In favor of a heightened state of security, where determinations are made according to fear-mongering policies?
The equation may have been much simpler 10 or 20 years ago, when limiting free speech contributed to maintaining some political stability. But in this day and age I think the state has yet to recognize that these variables now sit in opposition to one another, and the limitations placed on media in the information age will undoubtedly create long term instability. The sooner this is recognized, the sooner we’ll be better off.
UPDATE: The government has just amended the law based on directives from King Abdullah – specifically some of the aforementioned articles.
As part of the new amendments, the government deleted Article 8, which stipulated that â€œanyone who intentionally sends or disseminates data or information via the Internet or any information system that involves defamation, contempt or slander of any person shall be fined an amount not less than (100) one hundred Jordanian dinars and not exceeding (2,000) two thousand Jordanian dinarsâ€.
Juma said this step was taken due to the fact that Article 15 of the same law addresses this issue, adding that the new version of the law includes an amendment to Article 12B, deleting the paragraph that said â€œØ©such data and information or spread ideas affecting national security or foreign relations of the Kingdom, as well as public safety or the national economyØ©,â€ as the aim of the legislation is to effectively prosecute cyber crimes.
Moreover, Articles 13A and 13B were also amended to give more clarification that law enforcement employees are required to obtain permission from the competent public prosecutor before accessing any place suspected of having been used to commit any of the crimes stipulated in this law. [source]
Amending laws after mass criticism (especially the kind that receives global attention) is rare. However, when it does happen I find myself equally conflicted. Does on applaud the government for stepping up and righting a wrong? Or do we continue to wonder why those wrongs were institutionalized in the first place, and what would have happened had no one spoken up? In other words, do these kind of moves indicate a paradigm shift in thinking, which, at the end of the day, is what we’re really in need of?
The cynic in me thinks not.