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(Beirut) – A proposed law requiring electronic publications to obtain a license and granting executive authorities the power to close down unlicensed sites threatens freedom of expression online. The government on August 22, 2012, sent the draft amendments to the Press and Publications law to parliament for approval.

“The government has long imposed restrictions on how Jordanians may express their thoughts and opinions,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Now it is trying to extend those restrictions to online expression.”

The dangers the proposed law poses to online expression arise from its vague definition of “electronic publications” that would be subject to the law, new executive power to block websites, and unreasonable restrictions on online content, including comments posted by website users, Human Rights Watch said.

It remains unclear which online publications would fall under the law, Human Rights Watch said. Its definition of an electronic publication as “an electronic site on the Internet with a fixed address that offers publication services, including news, reports, investigations, articles, comments,” potentially includes sites registered abroad, and in any language.

The proposed law, the sixth in a series of amendments to the 1998 Press and Publications Law, would amend article 49 to require registration with the Commerce Ministry and licensing from the Press and Publications Department in the Culture Ministry for any “electronic publication that engages in publication of news, investigations, articles, or comments, which have to do with the internal or external affairs of the kingdom.”

Proposed changes to two articles empower authorities to block a website under certain conditions. Articles 48 and 49 give the director of Press and Publications Department the authority to block websites that are either unlicensed or deemed to be in violation of any law, and to close the website’s offices, if they exist, without providing a reason or obtaining a court order. Affected parties would be able to challenge the decision in the Supreme Court of Justice, an administrative court.

The changes to article 49 would make the owner, editor-in-chief, and director of an electronic publication share the responsibility for comments or posts that users put on their website. The website managers would be obliged “not [to] publish user comments containing information or facts unrelated to the news item or if their truth has not been checked,” or if they violate any laws.

The government has not shown a valid reason for prohibiting user comments that are deemed unrelated to the item that triggered the comment, a prohibition that appears to be arbitrary interference in the right to free expression, Human Rights Watch said. Obliging website managers to check the truth of comments is also not a valid restriction on freedom of speech, which includes the freedom to express unproven statements or even falsehoods.

Furthermore, a requirement to vet comments’ “truthfulness” is also unreasonable, Human Rights Watch said. It would not be feasible for many reasons, among them the large numbers of comments that users post shortly after a news item is posted and the basic difficulty of confirming the “truth” of a comment.

Further, Human Rights Watch said, a requirement that website managers refrain from publishing user comments that “violate laws” has a valid aim when the comments violate reasonable laws. But this does not extend to Jordan’s laws that are contrary to international standards on freedom of expression. Remedies to posting libelous comments or those that incite violence may entail a requirement to remove these comments, rather than prosecuting website managers, as Jordan’s laws permit.

In his May 2011 report to the UN General Assembly, the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, wrote that, “Holding intermediaries liable for the content disseminated or created by their users severely undermines the enjoyment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, because it leads to self-protective and over-broad private censorship, often without transparency and the due process of the law.” La Rue added that, “Censorship measures should never be delegated to a private entity, and … no one should be held liable for content on the Internet of which they are not the author.”

Jordan’s existing Press and Publications Law, in articles 5, 7, and 38, and the penal code, in articles 122 and 188 to 200, among others, contain numerous content restrictions, criminalizing defamation including libel and slander, including against entities that are not people such as government institutions, symbols, and religions. These laws make violations a criminal offense carrying prison terms, contrary to recent definitive guidance on the right to freedom of expression by the UN Human Rights Committee, in its 2011 General Comment No 34. The committee wrote that, “States parties should consider the decriminalization of defamation and, in any case, the application of the criminal law should only be countenanced in the most serious of cases [of defamation] and imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty.”

Website editors may be required to take down certain types of offensive comments once they are brought to their attention, but where the volume of comment postings is high, such as on Facebook or Twitter, or the available capacity for reviewing postings is low, such as on personal blogs, it may be unreasonable to expect website managers to preview postings before publication, Human Rights Watch said.

In the same report, La Rue stated that, “In cases of defamation of individuals’ reputation [on the internet], given the ability of the individual concerned to exercise his/her right of reply instantly to restore the harm caused, the types of sanctions that are applied to offline defamation may be unnecessary or disproportionate.”

In 2011, the government proposed, but ultimately withdrew, changes to the law setting up an Anti-Corruption Commission that would have imprisoned for six months anyone who made “unjustified” allegations of corruption. In 2010, the government passed a Law on Information System Crimes, which in Article 8 imposed fines of JOD 100 to JOD 2,000 (US$140 to $2,800) for sending or publishing anything defamatory to another person through information systems, including email, text messages, or the internet.

Human Rights Watch also opposed the licensing requirements for “electronic publications” as contrary to international standards. The Human Rights Committee’s General Comment 34 states that. “General state systems of registration or licensing of journalists are incompatible with” permissible restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, and, “Any restrictions on the operation of websites, blogs or any other internet-based … information dissemination system … are only permissible to the extent that they are compatible with” those restrictions.

Requiring bloggers, human rights activists writing on their websites, or other internet-based information dissemination to obtain licenses would put undue burdens on their freedom of expression, and the content restrictions on criminal defamation as well as user comments fail to meet the criteria of permissible restrictions, Human Rights Watch said.

The proposed amendments are being studied by the Committee on National Outlook in the House of Deputies, which can then send them to the floor for a vote.

“Jordan’s parliamentarians should reject these amendments to the press and publications law,” Wilcke said.

The response to the proposed amendment from Jordan’s media and information technology professionals has been overwhelmingly negative. Tariq Momani, head of Jordan’s press syndicate, told Human Rights Watch he urged withdrawing the proposal. The prominent NGO Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists presented a detailed legal memorandum contending that the proposal did not make sense legally and was unworkable. The Coordination Group of Electronic Websites, representing 21 news websites, condemned the proposals on August 25, while another trade group, the Jordanian Electronic Press Association, rejected the authority to block websites, while welcoming efforts to apply the same legal standards to electronic publishing that exist for print media.

On September 3, the National Center for Human Rights in a statement cited the high threshold that must be met under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which became domestic law in Jordan after its promulgation in the Official Gazette in 2006, before a government may legitimately restrict the right to freedom of expression. Article 19 of the ICCPR requires any restrictions on expression to be necessary in a democratic society and for the protection of national security, public order, public health and morals, or the rights and freedoms of others.

Media professionals and ordinary citizens in Jordan regularly find themselves charged with and convicted of criminal offenses related to speech. In April, the State Security Court military prosecutor detained Jamal al-Muhtasib, editor of the Gerasa News website, for trying to “undermine the system of government” over an article that appeared on his website claiming irregularities in a corruption inquiry. The case remains open but the trial has not yet started, al-Muhtasib told Human Rights Watch. He is free on bail.

On July 26, JoSat, a private Jordanian satellite TV station that had been operating for three years was blocked from broadcasting, apparently on orders of an unknown Jordanian party, Rula Hurub, a broadcaster on JoSat, told Human Rights Watch. The night before, Hurub had hosted the weekly “Straight Talk” show with four guests discussing the government’s reform efforts, in particular a new election law. Dr. Riyadh al-Hurub, the managing director of JoSat, said he believed that JoSat had been prevented from broadcasting for political reasons.  

Until July 26, JoSat had been transmited by the Egyptian satellite company NileSat. It remains off the air since NileSat dropped it.

On August 14, Amman’s prosecutor-general charged Rula al-Hurub and her four guests with undermining the system of government, undermining the dignity of the king, and insulting the dignity of a state institution, al-Hurub and the guests told Human Rights Watch. The guests are Labib Qamhawi, member of an opposition group; Ja’far Hurani, former member of parliament for the Islamic Action Front, the largest opposition party; Dr. Muhammad Kafawin, general-secretary of the opposition Social Left Movement; and Ghazi al-Fayez, former member of parliament and now member of an opposition group. Al-Fayez faces an additional charge of “inciting overthrow of the government.” The case has not been referred to court and the accused remain at liberty.

“The government is already using existing laws to go after opponents and critics,” Wilcke said. “The state should be rolling back those laws, not extending them to online expression.”

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