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A crackdown on freedom of expression in Jordan


The crown prince of Jordan’s lavish wedding this spring had been eagerly awaited in the kingdom’s official media for months, and when it arrived it did not disappoint. After days of public festivities, celebrities and royals, dressed in designer clothes, strolled through an opulent palace.

The editors of AlHudood, a satirical site that is the Arab world’s answer to The Onion, poked fun at the June case in a series of articles, one of which was a bogus public service campaign warning that security guards would pull the teeth out of anyone who didn’t smile enough during the ceremony.

Then, in July, the Jordanian authorities blocked AlHudood – “The Borders” in Arabic – making it the latest victim of a growing crackdown on freedom of expression. But for a decade, the site had carefully navigated the red lines of what could and could not be published in the kingdom.

Isam Uraiqat, the founder of AlHudood who now lives in London, said the ostentatious display of wealth in a country with widespread poverty made him an irresistible target for satire.

“Throughout our 10 years, we’ve really pushed the envelope,” said Mr Uraiqat, 39. “It goes beyond simple freedom of expression, that’s all. They crack down on everyone as hard as they can.

An important ally of the United States and one of the most stable countries in a turbulent region, Jordan has long offered a milder form of autocracy than states along its borders, such as Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. But recently, the Jordanian government has taken steps to restrict free speech, including passing new cybercrime legislation that could be used against critics of the monarchy.

Faisal al-Shboul, Jordan’s information minister, defended the new legislation as necessary to tackle the rise of “fake news” and hate speech on social media. He added that many of these accusations were already in the books for print media, but had yet to be applied to online expression.

“There is a whole generation of Jordanians who believe that slander and defamation are part of freedom of expression,” said al-Shboul, who insisted the law would help maintain “cohesion social and inner peace.

Western allies look to Jordan as a key partner in counterterrorism efforts in the region. But the country of 11million is increasingly rocked by internal tensions, including accusations that King Abdullah II amassed vast overseas assets and the 2021 arrest of the monarch’s half-brother. , charged with involvement in a sedition plot.

New cybercrime legislation, enacted last month, provides for a penalty of up to three years in prison or a fine of up to $28,000 for content deemed likely to harm public order, stir up conflict or disrespect religion. Jordanians charged with inciting online “debauchery” will face at least six months in prison and a $21,000 fine.

In a rare public rebuke to Jordan, the United States critical the law is deemed too broad. And human rights groups said it gave state prosecutors more power to arbitrarily crack down on dissidents and LGBTQ groups.

“This type of law, with vague definitions and concepts, could undermine Jordan’s economic and political reform efforts,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said in a July statement before the adoption of the law.

In an attempt to head off growing criticism at home and abroad over the law’s passage, King Abdullah said Jordan would protect freedom of expression and consider revising it if necessary.

“Jordan has never been an oppressive country and never will be,” the monarch said. said Jordanian human rights groups in mid-August, according to a government statement.

Jordan has long drawn clear red lines for its citizens, blocking dozens of websites and banning criticism of the monarchy and security services. But he also tolerated minimal dissent — including free conversation on social media — and dissenters were more likely to be harassed than imprisoned.

Jordanian authorities have long granted “a margin of freedom of expression”, said Nidal Mansour, media freedom advocate in Jordan. “This space is now being closed gradually.”

In December, the kingdom temporarily banned TikTok after footage of protests in southern Jordan – in which a police officer was killed – spread widely on the platform. Nine months later, TikTok remains virtually inaccessible in Jordan.

Buoyed by optimism from the Arab Spring revolutions more than a decade ago, Uraiqat and two other Jordanians founded AlHudood in 2013. Fear of speaking out subsided after the uprisings, said Mr. Uraiqat, which prompted young Jordanians like him to pressure the envelope.

The website even mocked King Abdullah – long red line – for claiming he had fulfilled his promise to turn Jordan into a “constitutional monarchy” by amending the Constitution to grant himself absolute power.

AlHudood now reaches around 30 million people a year worldwide, Mr Uraiqat said.

King Abdullah has pledged in recent years to liberalize the Jordanian autocracy. But the country has instead experienced an “authoritarian turn,” said Adam Coogle, researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Artists and journalists are under increasing pressure to censor themselves or face the consequences, said Emad Hajjaj, a Jordanian cartoonist known for his scathing depictions of his countrymen’s daily struggles.

Mr Hajjaj was brought before a state security court in 2020 over a cartoon criticizing the United Arab Emirates, Jordan’s ally, for normalizing relations with Israel. He was released after five days and the charges against him were dropped.

But that experience was enough to make him fearful of defying the authorities.

Mr Hajjaj said he drew caricatures of the King of Jordan. Today, leafing through his sketchbook, he wonders if he could publish his old cartoons today.

“When I look at them, I’m like, ‘Could I even put these old drawings on my social media? And I regretfully conclude that the answer is: ‘Not anymore,’” Mr. Hajjaj said. “We are totally in regression.”

Admittedly, the Jordanian media has long operated under the shadow of strict restrictions. Journalists were sometimes detained for days or weeks, but rarely received lengthy prison sentences, said media freedom advocate Mansour.

That may be changing.

In July, a Jordanian court sentenced journalist Ahmed Hasan al-Zoubi to one year in prison for “undermining national unity” in a Facebook post criticizing a government minister.

“With this new law, they are ready to sue us for every word we write on social media,” said al-Zoubi, who plans to shut down his news site Sawaleif due to the new restrictions. “They could arrest us at any time.”



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