AMMAN: With Jordanian lawmakers scheduled to weigh up changes to the cybercrimes law, journalists and rights activists have warned of a major setback in public freedoms if parliament passes the controversial bill referred from the government.
The government recently referred the 2023 amendments to the law to the lower house of parliament with an “urgency status” note.
The law is on the agenda of the parliament’s current extraordinary session.
Financial penalties stipulated in the law have been stiffened in the amendments with the aim of curbing “rising “criminal acts online, the government said.
In recent remarks to the government-owned Al-Mamlakah TV, Faisal Shboul, minister of government communications, said that the new amendments are a response to rising online crimes.
He added that 16,000 complaints about Internet crimes had been filed in 2022 and another 8,000 during the first six months of 2023.
According to latest statistics on online offenses from the Judicial Council, 22,759 e-crimes were recorded between 2019 and 2023.
Recent figures from the cybercrime unit of the Public Security Department said that the number of cybercrime cases increased almost six-fold over the eight years between 2015 and 2022, “an indication that many use social media platforms without knowing the difference between the freedom of expression and committing offenses, unintentionally or not.”
The unit said it handled 2,305 cases in 2015, which grew to 16,027 in 2022, Jordan’s Petra News Agency reported.
Shboul said that the new amendments to the law address fake accounts on social media platforms and aim at enhancing privacy of online users and curbing misinformation and disinformation pertaining to national security and economy.
Concerning article 11 of the law, which stipulates prison term for publishing, republishing or sharing “hate speech” content, Shboul said that the imprisonment penalty is a “protective and preventive” measure.
On concerns raised over the law’s consequences on curbing press freedoms, the minister, also a long-time journalist, said that Jordanian journalists are protected by press and publication law and other laws.
Under the cybercrimes law, hate speech is defined as “every writing and every speech or action intended to provoke sectarian or racial sedition, advocate violence or foster conflict between followers of different religions and various components of the nation.”
The law stipulates a penalty not exceeding two years’ imprisonment for “hate speech” crimes.
Yahya Shuqair, an expert on media law, said that the new amendments to the cybercrimes law had stiffened penalties for online offenses, including fines and prison terms.
He said that the fine imposed on publishing “fake news” was being increased from JD20,000 ($28,000) to JD40, 000, while the prison term for “defamation crimes” was being raised from three months to three years.
Shuqair said that the 2023 cybercrimes law allows no room for judicial discretion and is alien to the legal principle that a penalty shall be “proportionate.”
“A judge can no longer decide between a fine or prison term for online offenders but both,” he said.
Shuqair expressed hope that MPs revisit the government’s amendments and open dialogue with experts, journalists, rights activists before passing the bill.
“But if the law is passed as referred from the government, it would signal another setback in the status of public freedoms in Jordan,” he said.
Journalist and rights activists Khaled Qudah said that a concize cybercrime law is needed to address rising online offenses, such as phishing, defamation, fraud, scam or blackmail.
However, Qudah said that the line between freedom of expression and cybersecurity is not made clear in the new law, which deals with the two different concepts as if one.
“The fear is the ‘grey zone’ between the definitions of the two concepts which might be interpreted by as being one in nature and degree,” he said.
“What can be interpreted as hate crime can be seen as defamation and this is the dilemma.”