Amman – When Jordanian journalist Osama Ramini was detained last October, it was hard to believe that a “less than ordinary” article, analysing why all students of one public school failed to pass the national exam, was the reason.
But thanks to a loophole in the amended Jordanian cyber crime law which came into effect in June 2015, Ramini, an editor-in-chief of a licensed local news website and a member of Jordanian Press Association, was detained.
In April 2015, the law was amended without much fanfare in the country. Not only did its controversial article (11) give the green light to detain citizens based on their online activities, but it also treated ordinary online users and journalists who published online on an equal footing.
Journalists are not infallible prophets, but this penalty has been long abolished in democratic countries for crimes related to freedom of expression.
“I admit that I receive many letters from readers and articles that I am sure are correct, but I only publish one quarter of what we receive, fearing the possible consequences,” Ramini, whose journalism experience spans two decades, told al Jazeera.
He was, however, not the only nor the first journalist to be detained in relation to their work. While describing a dysfunctional public school caused his detention, questioning the rejection of Italian gas cylinders had led in August 2015 to the detention of his colleague Atef Joulani, editor-in-chief of Assabeel daily newspaper.
Journalists who were detained had one thing in common: They all left traces of their opinions on an electronic platform. Since June 2015, more than six journalists and one activist have been detained, propelling groups that defend press freedoms to criticise the Jordanian government.
However, journalist and researcher Sawsan Zaidah points out that print journalists are not necessarily immune. Speaking to al Jazeera, Zaidah said that “the law can apply to any journalist whose work is published online. Is there a Jordanian newspaper that runs without a website today? In practical terms, this means detention can apply to everyone equally!”
While the Amman-based Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ) is primarily concerned with press freedoms, it has recently launched a campaign to repeal article 11 of the cyber crime law and defend the freedom of both journalists and ordinary online users.
Titled “Talking is not a Crime”, the campaign opposes “penalties usurping freedom”, according to the organisers. Director of CDFJ Nidal Mansour told al Jazeera that “we are not against accountability, we are simply against detention … Journalists are not infallible prophets, but this penalty has been long abolished in democratic countries for crimes related to freedom of expression.”
While Jordan’s ranking in the “Reporters without Borders” report in 2015 has improved, Mansour still believes that violations that took place in 2015 were “grave”. A staggering 93.2 percent of journalists said in a poll that they practised self-censorship, and the list of taboos is only expected to grow in light of the amended Cyber Crime Law.
The Jordanian government clearly disagreed with the campaign’s definition of a crime. Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications Mohammad Momani, who was in office when the law was passed, said during a meeting with Jordanian MPs that “a word can have the same impact as a bullet”.
Ex-MP Zakariah Shaikh echoed this statement, stressing that the cyber crime law was “necessary” to combat several crimes, including slander and defamation. Shaikh told al Jazeera that “a journalist’s freedom is only safeguarded when he/she is publishing in print newspapers or licensed websites, but this does not extend to social media websites”.
Although journalists were actually detained for publishing articles on licensed news websites, Shaikh insisted that these articles also appeared on their social media pages. When asked about the difference, Shaikh said that it was “huge … just like a medical doctor who is licensed to perform transplants in a hospital, but not in his private clinic”.
Similarly, journalists “take off” their journalism hats when they publish on their Facebook pages and become just like any other user, according to Shaikh. However, the ex-MP admitted that “the elasticity of the law could lead to misuse by the state” in a manner that could jeopardise public and press freedoms.
Fearing that a licence signalled the end of a relatively free online media sphere at the time, online journalists organised peaceful sit-ins against the amendments.
However, they were later encouraged to obtain a licence in exchange for the “immunity” that the law safeguards. Four years later, those promises “have only proven to be deceptive”, according to Zaidah.
Ramini seemed to agree with this conclusion too, as he believed the pressure for a genuine reform subsided, encouraging “the Jordanian state to rescind all decisions that were taken during the Arab Spring”.