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Jordan's Law of Unintended Consequences

A new law in Jordan designed to counter the threat of ISIS has led to a crackdown on free speech and civil liberties.
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Amman, Jordan. (Photo: JPRichard/Shutterstock)

Amman, Jordan. (Photo: JPRichard/Shutterstock)

In 2014, the government of Jordan sued Naseem Tarawnah and his former organization for reporting the news. A controversial law, amended in 2012, required news websites to obtain a license to continue reporting. Tarawnah and his colleagues did not apply for one, and their website was repeatedly blocked by the government.

Today, journalists like Tarawnah are being indicted under another law—Jordan’s anti-terror law, originally passed in 2006 and amended in May of last year. The law is part of a push by the Jordanian government to increase security in response to the rise of ISIS. While the targets of the newly revised law are sympathizers of ISIS living in Jordan, among its side-effects has been the restraint of free speech inside the country. For critics, the reason for the crackdown on free speech is simple: The law is ambiguously written and its vague definition of terrorism leaves journalists—or even everyday citizens using technology—vulnerable to arrest and prosecution before a military, not civilian, court.

“Vague language allows the state (through the courts) to manipulate situations under the guise that everything is open to interpretation,” said Tarawnah, who now operates the website, in an email interview. He cited the example of Hisham Moussa, a 21-year-old Jordanian who was arrested under the law after allegedly forwarding a message on WhatsApp, an instant messaging phone application.

Under the law’s authority, activists and opposition leaders have been indicted on different charges that stem from expressing unpopular or contentious ideas.

Tarawnah and other opponents of the law argue that because it defines what is and isn’t terrorism in vague terms, people can be arrested for emails they send or things they post on social media. Under the law’s authority, activists and opposition leaders have been indicted on different charges that stem from expressing unpopular or contentious ideas. Early this year, deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan Zaky Bin Irshaid was sentenced to 18 months in prison for a Facebook post criticizing the United Arab Emirates.

Jordan’s prosecution of Irshaid and others under state security court, a special authority overseeing internal and external threats, is especially unsettling because Western allies and media so often praise Jordan for its comparatively progressive character alongside more repressive regimes in the region. It’s clear that some Jordanian journalists and experts take a different view. They say that the threat of ISIS is being used as an excuse to justify how the anti-terror law has expanded the power of Jordan’s security apparatus.

“Where, say a protest in Saudi Arabia might end very quickly with people being beaten, killed, locked up and tortured immediately (along with Syria or Egypt), Jordan plays it smart. It manages the situation using soft containment, while taking down names,” Tarawnah said in an email. “When the news cycle moves on (and any international spotlight fades), the names are called in. Sometimes they’ll wait months for an activist to slip up and then take them down. Kind of like getting Al Capone on tax evasion.”

Following Tarawnah’s logic, the threat of ISIS is a new means to the security state’s end of policing, and in some cases, curtailing free speech. He also isn’t alone in his critique of the regime’s actions, regardless of its motives. Think tanks and NGOs like Human Rights Watch have acknowledged the military prosecutions of political activists and dissenters under Jordan’s anti-terror law as a threat to freedom of expression. HRW highlighted major problems with amendments to the law, which include its vague wording, in a report released last year.

Jordan’s increased security measures are evident not only in its new uses of anti-terror legislation; they are especially visible along the new border infrastructure. In years past, the borders between Jordan and its neighbors, Syria and Iraq, were porous at best. People could walk back and forth across them without carrying their passports or spending hours at a checkpoint.

But early last month, Jordan completed final construction on a new surveillance system to monitor and control its border with Syria. Built by Raytheon and partially funded by the United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency, this new system—reportedly worth $79 million—boasts cutting-edge radar and surveillance towers in addition to key command, control, and communications capabilities.

Jordan’s border system will also receive additional support from Raytheon in the coming months: software, infrared cameras, power systems, and training for Jordanian operators of the high-tech equipment. Essentially, this system will enable border forces to detect potential infiltrators from miles away. It has been hailed as a big step forward in keeping Syria’s jihadis out of Jordan.

While successful in this respect, however, it has—like the anti-terror law—had unfortunate and unintended consequences. Several major border entry points have been closed and the flow of goods has been disrupted as a result of the new system, which has in turn had damaging economic effects on Jordan’s border communities.

Jordan’s own response to its security challenges also runs the risk of becoming a long-term setback for political freedom and economic stability in the country.

Unfortunately, Jordan’s increased border-security efforts to thwart ISIS have also left many asylum-seekers from Syria stranded in the desert with limited access to food, water, and medical assistance. “Jordan has gone to great lengths to meet the needs of the Syrian refugees,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch in an article posted on their website last month. “But that is no excuse to abandon newer arrivals in remote border areas for weeks without effective protection and regular aid access.”

Many in the international community understand that ensuring the stability of Jordan is paramount in containing ISIS within the terror network’s self-drawn borders. At the same time, Jordan’s own response to its security challenges also runs the risk of becoming a long-term setback for political freedom and economic stability in the country.

Jordan is not likely to change its policies without objection from the international community, but this seems equally unlikely, demonstrated by the U.S.’s large investment in Jordan’s border project. Maintaining the stability and security of Jordan in light of the advances of ISIS just outside the country’s borders is undeniably of paramount importance; however, security and human rights need not be mutually exclusive.

This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.