A Crackdown on Free Speech in Jordan

By John Mercury September 4, 2023

The lavish wedding of Jordan’s crown prince this spring was breathlessly anticipated for months in the kingdom’s state media, and when it arrived, it did not disappoint. After days of public festivities, celebrities and royalty decked out in designer clothing swanned about an opulent palace.

The writers at AlHudood, a satirical website that is the Arab world’s answer to The Onion, poked fun at the June affair in a series of articles, one of them a mock public service campaign warning that security officers would yank out the teeth of anyone who did not smile enough during the ceremony.

Then in July, the Jordanian authorities blocked AlHudood — Arabic for “The Boundaries” — making it the latest casualty in an escalating clampdown on free speech. But for a decade, the site had carefully navigated the red lines of what could and could not be published in the kingdom.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 it an irresistible target for satire.

“Throughout our 10 years, we really pushed the lines,” said Mr. Uraiqat, 39. “It’s beyond just freedom of speech — it’s everything. They’re cracking down on everyone as hard as possible.”

An important U.S. ally and one of the more stable countries in a turbulent region, Jordan has long offered a softer form of autocracy than states along its borders, like Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. But recently, Jordan’s government has taken steps to rein in free expression, including with the passage of 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 combat a rise in “fake news” and hate speech on social media. He said many of the charges were already on the books for print media, but had yet to be applied to expression online.

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

Western allies count on Jordan as a key partner in counterterrorism efforts in the region. But the country of 11 million has been increasingly roiled by internal tension, including accusations that King Abdullah II had amassed vast offshore assets and the 2021 arrest of the monarch’s half brother, accused of involvement in a sedition plot.

The new cybercrime legislation, enacted last month, carries a punishment of up to three years in prison or a fine of up to $28,000 for content deemed to undermine public order, stir up strife or disrespect religion. Jordanians accused of inciting “debauchery” online will face at least six months in prison and a $21,000 fine.

In a rare public rebuke of Jordan, the United States has criticized the law as overly broad. And human rights groups said it further empowered state prosecutors to arbitrarily crack down on dissidents and L.G.B.T.Q. groups.

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

In an attempt to stave off rising criticism at home and abroad over the passage of the law, King Abdullah said Jordan would protect freedom of expression and consider revising it if needed.

“Jordan was never an oppressive country and will never be one,” the monarch told Jordanian human rights groups in mid-August, according to a government readout.

Jordan has long drawn clear red lines for its citizens, blocking dozens of websites and barring criticism of the monarchy and the security services. But it has also tolerated a modicum of opposition — including a freewheeling social media conversation — and dissidents were more likely to be harassed than jailed.

Jordanian authorities long allowed “a margin of freedom of speech,” said Nidal Mansour, an advocate for media freedom in Jordan. “That space is now being closed step by step.”

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 mostly inaccessible in Jordan.

Buoyed by the optimism of the Arab Spring revolutions more than a decade ago, Mr. Uraiqat and two other Jordanians founded AlHudood in 2013. The fear of speaking out faded after the uprisings, Mr. Uraiqat said, leading young Jordanians like himself to push the envelope.

The website even mocked King Abdullah — long a red line — saying that he had fulfilled his promise to turn Jordan into a “constitutional monarchy” by changing the Constitution to grant himself absolute power.

AlHudood now reaches about 30 million people a year across the world, Mr. Uraiqat said.

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

Artists and journalists face rising pressure to self-censor or face consequences, said Emad Hajjaj, a Jordanian cartoonist known for his acerbic depictions of his compatriots’ everyday struggles.

Mr. Hajjaj was brought before a state security court in 2020 over a cartoon slamming the United Arab Emirates, a Jordanian ally, for normalizing relations with Israel. He was released after five days, and the charges were dismissed.

But the experience was enough to make him fear defying the authorities.

Mr. Hajjaj said he used to draw caricatures of Jordan’s king. Now, flipping through his sketchbook, he wonders if he could publish his old cartoons today.

“When I look at them, I think, ‘Could I even put these old drawings on my social media?’ And I conclude with regret that the answer is, ‘Not anymore,’” Mr. Hajjaj said. “We’re totally backsliding.”

To be sure, Jordanian media has long operated in the shadow of tight restrictions. Journalists have occasionally been detained for days or weeks, but have rarely faced serious jail time, said Mr. Mansour, the media freedom advocate.

That may be changing.

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

“With this new law, they’re ready to prosecute us for every word we write on social media,” said Mr. al-Zoubi, who plans to shutter his news site, Sawaleif, because of the new restrictions. “They could arrest us at any moment.”


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