Jordan is arresting people for criticizing the government on social media

Starting in December 2016, the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate (GID) has arrested 18-20 opposition activists, including retired army and intelligence generals, a former MP, a former high-ranking government official, and several teachers for sharing posts on social media calling for reform. The individuals were charged with “insulting the King” and “incitement to spread chaos to undermine the political regime of Jordan using social media”.

We are gravely worried about the sharp increase in arrests of government critics using social media to express their opinions. The government has taken it upon itself to monitor and prosecute those publishing speech that “sows discord” or is “abusive”. It is using terrorism as an excuse to clamp down on human rights. This has to stop.

The latest spate of arrests took place last week. The teachers’ syndicate issued a statement on Monday saying that among those arrested, ten were teachers held for criticising the government on social media. According the the syndicate’s spokesperson, the teachers were arrested for expressing their opinions on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, criticising government handling of an attack in the town of Karak in which 13 people were killed, and criticising corruption in government institutions. As of January 18, 2017, the detainees had been transferred to al-Hashemiya prison, 100km north of the capital, Amman.

Vague, overbroad “counter-terrorism” laws enable crackdowns

All activists were arrested under various penal code provisions along with the 2006 counter-terrorism law, which was amended in 2014 to include acts such as “disturbing [Jordan’s] relations with a foreign state”, a charge already criminalised in the penal code that is regularly used to punish peaceful criticism of foreign countries or their rulers. The amendments remove the requirement that the action be connected to an act of violence, instead vaguely referencing acts that “sow discord” or “disturb public order”. All cases related to terrorism—using the government’s own definition—are tried in the State Security Court, a military tribunal.

The activists want to see a corruption investigation re-opened, and are also demanding an official investigation into what they say are “security and intelligence failures” that led to a spate of attacks last year. They are also calling for the head of the GID and other security chiefs to be fired for what they say was a failure to prevent “terrorist incidents”.

Jordan has been down this road before

The Jordanian government’s practice of silencing critical voices is not novel. For instance, on September 17, 2013, police arrested Nidhal al-Fara’nah and Amjad Mu’ala—publisher and editor of the Jafra News website, respectively—after it posted a third-party YouTube video that authorities deemed insulting to the brother of Qatar’s ruler. Prosecutors charged both men with “disturbing relations with a foreign state” before the State Security Court, a court that has traditionally tried terrorism cases and whose judges include military officers.

In addition to the counter-terrorism law, the Jordanian penal code classifies other vaguely worded offenses (such as “undermining the political regime”) as terrorism. The State Security Court has jurisdiction over these offenses as well, and will still be able to try peaceful protesters and others that are charged with them. In January 2014, the government amended the State Security Court law to restrict the court’s jurisdiction to terrorism, espionage, treason, money counterfeiting, and drug offenses. In 2015, eight individuals were arrested on similar grounds.

This spike in arrests for expression on social media is terrifying. The trials of arrested in individuals being held in the State Security Court is even more reason for concern; the court bans the enjoyment of several fundamental procedural rights. Jordan must work to respect human rights within its own borders, and to stop using terrorism as an excuse to clamp down on rights.

Jordan must keep its commitment to human rights

Jordan has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and must follow the guidance of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the only official body charged with interpreting the treaty. Its General Comment 34 clearly calls out “lese majeste” laws and other prohibitions on criticism of public officials as “not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties” for expression. Targeting users for mere expression on social media actively chills free speech, as articulated in Access Now’s policy guide, “A Digital Rights Approach to Proposals for Preventing or Countering Violent Extremism Online”.

As we explain in the guide, counter-terrorism efforts often put free expression in the crosshairs. Governments around the world must avoid using broad, vague laws to criminalise expression, and must also refrain from coercing private industry to screen or censor speech outside of legal process. Instead of using anti-terror legislation to shut down critics, the Jordanian government should safeguard the rights it has committed to protect.