Jordanian journalists succeeded this week in turning back some of the most repressive aspects of a new law on cyber crimes. The initial version of the law, approved by the cabinet of ministers on August 3, included broad restrictions on material deemed by the state to be defamatory or to involve national security. It also allowed law enforcement officials to conduct warrantless searches of online outlets. Facing domestic protests and international pressure from CPJ and others, the cabinet revised the measure on Sunday.
In a statement, Information Minister Ali al-Ayed said the government removed provisions in the law–which regulates a wide-ranging set of digital matters–that could hinder press freedom or that appeared to single out online journalists for special regulation.
The action came after weeks of pressure from within the country and outside. Nearly 30 Jordanian news outlets, most of them Web based, organized a conference and issued a statement describing the initial law as “a major blow to new media.” They warned of continuing protests if the government did not reverse its decision. In a letter to King Abdullah II, CPJ described the original measure this way:
While the provisional 2010 Information Systems Cyber Crimes Law addresses important issues of electronic crimes like hacking or illegally obtaining information for financial transactions, it also includes a number of broadly written provisions that could hinder online expression and restrict the ability of journalists to report the news.
On Sunday, the government said it had deleted one of the most contentious provisions, Article 8, which vaguely barred the “sending or posting data or information via the Internet or any information system that involves defamation or contempt or slander.” Online journalists saw the article as an invitation to harass journalists who post critical articles.
The cabinet also deleted a worrisome clause in Article 12 that banned “spreading ideas affecting national security or foreign relations of the Kingdom, as well as public safety or the national economy.” The revised measure still imposes restrictions on national security reporting online, although it sets more precise boundaries: Websites may not publish “data or information not available to the public, concerning national security or foreign relations of the kingdom, public safety or the national economy.”
The cabinet backed off warrantless searches as well. Its revised version requires law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant from a public prosecutor or court in order to search an online outlet. It also requires police to provide evidence of a crime.
On Monday, the state-funded National Centre for Human Rights and the head of the Jordanian Bar Association welcomed changes to the law. Both groups had been critical of the initial version.
Journalists remain cautious. “We want to see how these amendments will be implemented,” Ala Fazza, editor-in-chief of the news site Kulna al-Urdun, told CPJ. He called the revisions “a partial victory” and a sign of online media’s growing influence. Basil Okour, a co-owner of the Ammon news agency, took a similar view. He called the revisions “acceptable” and said he was encouraged the government responded to journalists’ concerns.
But at least some online publishers remain dissatisfied. Jihad Abu Bidar, a journalist for the news website Almuharrir, called the revisions superficial and said he and other online journalists plan to meet on Saturday to express their continuing opposition to the law.
Online publishers are also casting their eye toward another challenge–overturning a government order blocking state workers from visiting some 50 websites, mostly local news sites, during work hours. The government says the order will improve worker efficiency; online publishers say the order seems to single out local news outlets while not covering such things as gaming sites.