Free speech under siege in Jordan as king approves "draconian" new cybercrime law

King Abdullah II of Jordan headshot from the 200th Sovereign's parade at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst on April 14, 2023 in Camberley, England.
King Abdullah II of Jordan. (Image credit: Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)

Experts fear for freedom of expression in Jordan as King Abdullah II approves new cybercrime law on August 12. The law will replace the current cybercrime legislation enforced in 2015.

Deemed a "draconian" bill by human rights watchdogs, the new law gives authorities new powers to censor content online, throttle websites, block social media, and persecute those posting unauthorized content or using VPN services "with the intent of committing a crime or preventing its discovery."

After passing in Jordan's Parliamentary Legal Committee in July, the Senate slightly amended the proposed legislation last week (August 8) by allowing judges to choose between imposing prison time and fines rather than combined penalties—Associated Press reported. Now, following the king's approval, the new law is expected to come into force in a month's time.

Issues with Jordan's cybercrime law

In an open letter published at the end of July, 14 civil societies across the world, including Access Now, ARTICLE 19, and Human Rights Watch (HRW), strongly criticized the new Jordan's cybercrime law for its broad and imprecise language that "hamper free expression and access to information, and increase online censorship."

Undefined terminology failing to meet international law requirements for legal texts include terms like fake news, promoting, instigating, aiding or inciting immorality, online assassination of personality, provoking strife, undermining national unity, and contempt for religions.

"Such vague provisions open the door for Jordan’s executive branch to punish individuals for exercising their right to freedom of expression, forcing the judges to convict citizens in most cases," the letter reads.

People can be sent to prison or be the subject of hefty fines for posting names, pictures, or pieces of news that may offend law enforcement officials without prior authorization, for example. 

While downloading and using a VPN won't be illegal per se, utilizing such software to access foreign media could be weaponized by authorities to punish journalists, political dissidents, and truth-seekers within the country.

"At a time when people in Jordan are already deprived of spaces and forums to express their opinions, the government wants to further its power to all platforms of expression, through the passing of ambiguous and repressive laws," wrote the human rights advocates.

"Given Jordan's judicial system lacks independence and is frequently used to prosecute human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and political opponents, this law offers a dark prospect of Jordan’s civic space."

The situation gets even worse considering Jordan's bad track record when it comes to persecuting political dissidents and protecting civil rights. Last year's Freedom of the Net report labeled the internet in the country "partly free" due to widespread restrictions and state surveillance practices.

While we write this article, some of Jordan's journalists are already being prosecuted on charges of defamation under the 2015 law over some social media posts. With greater control over the internet and social media platforms, we can expect Jordan's already cramped digital freedoms to be further restricted, paving the way "for an alarming surge in online censorship."

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Chiara Castro
Senior Staff Writer

Chiara is a multimedia journalist committed to covering stories to help promote the rights and denounce the abuses of the digital side of life—wherever cybersecurity, markets and politics tangle up. She mainly writes news, interviews and analysis on data privacy, online censorship, digital rights, cybercrime, and security software, with a special focus on VPNs, for TechRadar Pro, TechRadar and Tom’s Guide. Got a story, tip-off or something tech-interesting to say? Reach out to