General: Jordan: Public freedoms, including freedom of expression and the right to privacy, must be protected

17.05.20

A series of measures by the Jordanian government to deal with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which were taken to preserve the life and safety of citizens have also impacted on their rights to freedom of expression and to privacy. While certain measures may be seen as taken to protect people, such as the declaration of a curfew, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) believes the government has violated the rights to freedom of expression and privacy, including by arresting several journalists and citizens over reports of economic hardship, and by encouraging excessive surveillance.

On 20 March 2020, the Jordanian Prime Minister announced that Defense Law No. 13 of 1993 would be used as the basis to help confront this virus and stop it from spreading, according to which 11 defense orders have been issued to date. The defense law gives the prime minister broad powers to restrict basic rights. However, Prime Minister Omar Al-Razzaz pledged to implement it "in a strictly limited manner," and stated that he would not infringe on political rights, freedom of expression, or private property.

On 15 April 2020, under the state of emergency, Defense Order No. 8 was issued which was deemed by human rights defenders as not in line with Jordan's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

A legal review of Defense Order No. 8 conducted by the Jordanian Civil Society Coordinating Coalition (HIMAM), entitled: "Defense Order No. 8 between necessities and restriction of freedoms", tackles its effects on public freedoms.

In its review, HIMAM warns that the wording in Defense Order No. 8 and the use of loose terms within the order can lead to violations of the right to freedom of expression and restrict it in a manner that contravenes the provisions of the constitution. Paragraph 2 of Article 2 of Defense Order No. 8 prohibits “The publication, re-publication or circulation of any news about the epidemic that would terrorise people or cause panic among them through the media or means of communication or on social networking platforms.” The penalties stipulated amount to three years in prison and a 3000 JD ($4,230 dollars) fine, or both.

The terms "Terrorising people and causing panic among them" are very elastic and a wide range of news fall under them, such as, figures, implications of the pandemic from various aspects and others, it may also include the government’s and concerned authorities’ handling of the pandemic. Criminalisation in this loose form may limit the ability of the media to perform its analytical and supervisory role, which the country desperately needs in times of emergency.

Prior to the issuance of Defense Order No. 8, several arrests took place that violate freedom of expression, the most important of which was announced on 10 April 2020 by the Jordanian Roya satellite channel about the arrest of its general manager, Fares Al-Sayegh (picture on the right) and its news director Mohammad Al-Khalidi (picture on the left). The channel said that the arrests came after the Public Prosecution at the State Security Court investigated Al-Sayegh and Al-Khalidi for broadcasting a report on Roya, including live and on its platforms on social media networks. Reliable local sources indicated that the arrests are related to a video that was widely published on 08 April, which includes television interviews in which Jordanian daily workers express their complaints about the economic situation due to the curfew imposed as a precautionary measure to protect people from COVID-19. On the evening of 12 April 2020, the Public Prosecution Office of the State Security Court released the two journalists on bail.

On 14 April 2020, the authorities also arbitrarily arrested Salim Akash, 40, a Bengali journalist residing in Jordan, for sharing a televised report on his Facebook account that addresses the difficulties faced by many Bengali workers in Jordan during the lockdown because of the Coronavirus. A family member said that three security men in civilian clothes arrested Akash in front of his house, without identifying themselves and without a warrant. The same person said that Akash called on 17 April from Al-Salt prison, saying that he would appear before the court "for violating a serious law," which he did not specify.

On 07 April 2020, Jordanian authorities arrested Salim Al-Batayneh, a 63-year-old former member of parliament, and his relative, Mutasim Al-Batayneh. Two members of their family confirmed that the family did not know their whereabouts until 12 April, when a member of the National Centre for Human Rights informed them that they were in Al-Salt prison on suspicion of "undermining the regime," which is considered a crime under the Anti-Terrorism Law, which is under the jurisdiction of the State Security Court. There are several previous documented cases illustrating how this charge can be abused by the Jordanian authorities to curb both political activism and criticism.

Three individuals were arrested for “spreading rumours” about the Coronavirus in Jordan. One person was arrested for spreading rumours about the Coronavirus in Sweileh district of Amman, another for “Promoting through audio recordings rumours about the government's intention to announce a comprehensive lockdown” (quarantine), while the third was arrested for claiming there was a death from the virus in Zarqa. On 15 April, the police announced that they were after an individual who claimed there was "a revolt" among prisoners in Marka Prison in Amman.

In an alarming development that impacts the privacy of people, the Jordanian government has created an electronic application (Caradar) to keep track of gatherings of various forms, or suspicions of infected cases, with the ability to pinpoint the location of people with high accuracy; to enable the competent bodies to deal with them. This can be considered as a surveillance tool or a means to encourage an informant culture, where citizens practice the informant's role in submitting reports to the state, which directly affects the freedom of individuals. It is unacceptable that the authorities encourage citizens to violate the basic freedoms of individuals, as the government itself does.

Under the Defense Law, a group of Jordanian youth returning from abroad were recently punished for violating the conditions of quarantine in the homes ordered by the state in the Dead Sea region, where they held a party during the evening, including dancing Dabkeh. A video of the party shared on social media sparked popular anger and demands to implement sanctions against these students, to which the state responded by shaving the students’ heads “to zero”, and the #on_zero hashtag became the top trending topic on Twitter in Jordan, among supporters of the government’s action and opponents of a measure that human rights defenders deemed illegal. Moreover, the Minister of Health Saad Jaber boasted about this "achievement" when he said: "They shaved the youths’ heads to zero." In addition, their photos were published in the media.

This measure is against the law, as this punishment is not stipulated in the Jordanian Penal Code. In civil laws, there is no penalty of shaving heads, and the provisions of the Defense Law also do not allow for such penalties.

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights calls on the Jordanian government to:

  1. Refrain from enacting defense orders dealing with provisions already regulated by laws and legislation;
  2. Urgently issue legislation that protects the right to privacy in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, and one that it is in line with international values and covenants;
  3. Amend Article 11 of the Cyber ​​Crime Law, which stipulates the punishment of anyone who intentionally sends, resends, or publishes data or information through the information network, a website, or any information system that involves defamation, libel, or insulting any person with imprisonment for a period not less than three months and a fine of no less than 100 dinars and no more than 2000 dinars;
  4. Repeal Article 2/118 of the Penal Code, which limits freedom of expression, stipulating “whoever engages in actions, writings, or speeches not authorised by the government, that would expose the Kingdom to the risk of hostile acts, disturb its ties to a foreign country, or expose Jordanians to retaliatory actions against them or their money”;
  5. Exclude crimes related to freedom of opinion, expression and information in Article 149 of the Anti-Terrorism Law from falling under the provisions of the State Security Court Law; and
  6. Ensure that all human rights defenders, including journalists, bloggers and Internet activists in Jordan, are able to carry out their legitimate work without fear of reprisals and in a manner free from all restrictions, including judicial harassment and the persecution of their families.