Post at Your Peril?

This month: A worrying interpretation of the law, how to stop news websites from trading in sensationalist rumors, and why terrible events in Paris shouldn’t stifle the freedom to express ourselves online.

By Osama al Sharif

POST-AT-YOUR-PERIL

Journalists and social media activists could be detained or even imprisoned if found guilty of publishing libelous or defamatory material online. This is according to a recent statement put out by the Special Office for the Interpretation of Laws.

The government department was responding to a request by the Prime Minister, who had asked if items published on electronic media or social networks are governed by the Press and Publications Law or the Cybercrimes Law, and if trial procedures should take place under the Code of Criminal Procedures.

The office said libelous or defamatory comments committed in violation of the Cybercrimes Law via electronic sites and social media are tried according to the Code of Criminal Procedures and not the Press and Publications Law. The Code of Criminal Procedures refers to the Penal Code which allows detention and imprisonment.

So according to this, it’s not only journalists that could face imprisonment and detention, but also any activist on social media who’s accused of posting material that’s deemed libelous or defamatory.

NSK

In response to this alarming development, the Jordan Press Association announced it would mount a legal challenge against the decision, while the Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists said the decision would open the door to the detention of journalists for media-related crimes despite official assurances this would never happen in Jordan.

But even before the special office issued its interpretation, the government had on a number of occasions detained journalists, writers, and social media activists who had published items or posted opinions on social media outlets. In some cases the accused were tried in state security courts and were sentenced to imprisonment.

The latest interpretation widens the scope of possible detention to include anyone who posts an opinion on social media. This is a dangerous precedent. It also discourages publishers of electronic sites as it denies them rights that they should have acquired under the Press and Publications Law.

Journalists fear the government is seeking new ways to intimidate them by referring to stricter laws. But what’s even more disconcerting is that any citizen who expresses a controversial opinion on social media could now be detained and even imprisoned.

The issue is to be referred to the Constitutional Court, which should hopefully clear up any looming ambiguity.

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Stick to the Facts

The tragic death of two high–profile women last month shocked the country. Police said the two sisters, both successful in the business world, committed suicide by leaping from a building in east Amman.

But before the authorities could announce the outcome of their investigation, local media and social networks were abuzz with wild speculations and hearsay as to how the pair died. One site even went so far as to allege they were murdered by a former senior public official.

The way electronic media dealt with the case ignored the most basic professional and ethical journalistic codes. Some news websites were criticized for failing to respect the privacy of the victims’ family by publishing information that was later found to be incorrect. Furthermore, the Jordan Press Association didn’t warn publishers that what they were doing was wrong.

The sorry incident once again underlines the urgent need for the establishment of an independent media watchdog to intervene when publishers are found to have overstepped the mark.

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Vive la France … and Free Speech

Members of ISIS struck in the heart of Paris on November 13, killing and injuring hundreds of innocent civilians. The brutal attacks were likened to a European 9/11, and France’s President said his country was now at war with the terrorist group.

Repercussions will no doubt be felt all over the world. We can expect more restrictions on civil liberties, and governments will likely step up the tracking of anyone deemed to be promoting a culture of hatred on social media.

But the danger here is that the expression of any opinion online now risks being recorded and used against us at some point in the future as government agencies go about composing profiles of millions of activists.