Relatives of Nahed Hattar carry signs condemning his murder during a protest in Amman in September 2016. The Jordanian commentator and writer was shot dead outside a court while on trial for blasphemy over a Facebook cartoon. (AP/Raad Adayleh)
Relatives of Nahed Hattar carry signs condemning his murder during a protest in Amman in September 2016. The Jordanian commentator and writer was shot dead outside a court while on trial for blasphemy over a Facebook cartoon. (AP/Raad Adayleh)

Changes to Jordan’s hate speech law could further stifle press freedom

Recently proposed amendments to Jordan’s 2015 cybercrime law, including a vague and broad definition of hate speech, will further stifle press freedom on the pretext of protecting the country’s citizens, and could result in further self-censorship, several Jordanian journalists told CPJ.

Jordan’s Legislation and Opinion Bureau released a proposed bill sponsored by the Justice Ministry in late September that, if passed, will criminalize hate speech online and on social media and toughen the penalties for cybercrime, including increased fines and raised jail terms, according to news reports.

Although no date has been set for its discussion in Parliament, Jordanian journalists with whom CPJ spoke said they are concerned that the hate speech amendment would further shrink press freedom and lead to a selective application of the law, which could muzzle independent media and lead to further prosecutions of journalists who dare to address controversial issues.

CPJ has found that successive amendments and laws passed since 2012 have already curtailed press freedom in Jordan, including a 2012 amendment to the Press and Publications Law that requires outlets to register with the government, and a restrictive cybercrime law that, according to the pro-government Jordan Press Association and Freedom House, overrides the Press and Publications Law‘s ban on jailing journalists and allows for criminal defamation charges to be brought against journalists and news websites. Government trade bodies and the country’s bar association have also accused press freedom groups and non-profits of failing to register properly.

If passed, the hate speech amendment could further add to this restrictive legislative web of contradicting laws and regulations governing Jordanian media and put more journalists at risk of detention and legal prosecutions.

Reem al-Masri, the internet governance and digital rights editor for the Jordanian news website 7iber, told CPJ that the broad definition of hate speech in the proposed bill could give authorities another tool to impose restrictions on press freedom, under the pretext of protecting citizens.

Article 2, Section 4 of the draft bill defines hate speech as “any statement or act that would incite discord, religious, sectarian, racial or ethnic strife or discrimination between individuals or groups.”

She added that while authorities say the law would protect Jordanians, by charging journalists, officials risk creating an atmosphere where violence and threats are directed at the person charged.

Al-Masri pointed to the case of leftist journalist and commentator Nahed Hattar, who was shot dead by an extremist on September 26, 2016, outside an Amman court where he was standing trial for blasphemy over a Facebook cartoon he had shared.

“The state charged Hattar with blasphemy for sharing a cartoon, thus playing a role in positioning him as a criminal and creating an environment where calls inciting to his murder were tolerated. If the state had been serious about reducing damages caused by hate speech, it should have gone after the speech that eventually led to his crime, rather than after the solution that got them popular support. None of those who directly called for Hattar’s murder were persecuted,” al-Masri said.

Jordanian cartoonist Emad Hajjaj told CPJ he also became the target of hate speech after publishing a cartoon on his Facebook page and on the London-based news website Al-Araby al-Jadeed in October 2017.

Hajjaj said that he published the cartoon in response to reports that the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem had allegedly sold land to Israeli settlers and offshore companies at low prices to pay off church debt, but a wave of angry reactions forced him to delete it and issue an apology on his personal website. [CPJ was unable to determine if authorities ordered Al-Araby al-Jadeed to remove the content.]

“The atmosphere after the publication of the cartoon was very aggressive. I was surprised by the hostile comments on my social networking platforms calling for my death and accusing me of infidelity and heresy, the phone calls from angry people, and to top it all, the campaign against me for insulting religion,” Hajjaj said.

A lawsuit was filed against Al-Araby al-Jadeed and Hajjaj at the request of Father Rifat Bader, head of the Catholic Center for Studies and Media, a Catholic think tank based in the Middle East, for insulting Christianity, according to news reports. Hajjaj said he was summoned for questioning by the electronic crimes unit and the prosecutor, who released him after two days. Since then, Hajjaj, said, he has been waiting for a decision in his case or to hear if he will face charges.

Hajjaj said that when he notified police that he was receiving death threats via Facebook and in the mail he was advised to file a complaint under the cybercrime law, but he refused.

“I am a cartoonist. I couldn’t see myself causing somebody to be imprisoned, because I am against the cybercrime law, which restricts freedom of expression. I couldn’t resort to it to silence my fellow citizens,” Hajjaj said.

This tightening of the legal grip on Jordanian media comes hand-in-hand with an increase in state censorship, with certain political and religious issues becoming off limits, and a crackdown on press freedom groups and civil society organizations.

CPJ has found that state censorship comes in the form of gag orders on issues authorities deem controversial, including murder investigations and issues of counter-terrorism or national security, and reporting bans on covering religious authorities such as the Grand Mufti Abdul Karim Khasawneh, or royal family without prior approval from the Media Commission, a government agency responsible for enforcing press laws and regulations.

And last month CPJ documented how Shadi al-Zinati, editor-in-chief of the independent news website Jfranews, and the website’s editor, Omar Sabra al-Mahrama, were charged under the existing Cybercrime Act and Press and Publications Law after Jordanian Finance Minister Omar Malhas filed a complaint over an article that allegedly accused him of tax evasion. The journalists were released on bail two days later, but still face charges, according to reports.

The Jordan Press Association and the Media Commission did not immediately reply to CPJ’s requests for comment.

Ramsey George, co-founder of 7iber, told CPJ, that the complex “web of laws” means journalists are forced to spend more time making sure they have not broken any regulations, which leaves “outlets struggling for survival.”

The result of this restricted press environment is self-censorship, with over 90 percent of local journalists saying they self-censored in 2016, especially on issues concerning the Royal Court, the Armed Forces, and security services, according to news reports citing a survey from a regional press freedom group.

A journalist, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, told CPJ, “In Jordan, some issues are never discussed in the media, including the Royal Family and Court and the military and security services. Editors know what’s publishable and what’s not, what the limits are and what red lines should not be crossed. Self-censorship is how they achieve it.”

[Reporting from Amman]