Don’t Muzzle Social Media

Offensive comments made on Facebook shouldn’t be used as an excuse to expand government control of free speech.

By Osama Al Sharif

The government has announced it will present a draft social media law to the Lower House that aims to combat online hate speech. This decision was taken following the gruesome murder of political activist and writer Nahed Hattar, the Karak terrorist attacks, and the mass killing of tourists, including Jordanians, at an Istanbul restaurant on New Year’s Eve.

In the aftermath of the three incidents, Jordanians took to social media platforms and expressed various opinions about the victims and the circumstances of their murder. Some of these views were odious by any common standard of decency, and further underscored the deep-seated social, religious and cultural divisions that are tearing at the very fabric of our society.

Some of these reactions can and indeed should be classified as hate speech. They offended Jordanians of many backgrounds and prompted the authorities to pursue the people espousing them through the courts. There are actually laws in place that can sanction anyone who makes comments that a judge deems racist, seditious, discriminatory or religiously offensive. But if such legislation already exists, then we have to ask why the government is seeking to introduce an additional law?

Good intentions alone are not enough to justify such a significant move. Civil society and human rights activists, including the Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists, have denounced the government’s plan. Most see the move as yet another attempt by the government to further limit freedom of expression. Past experience proves such fears are well founded. When the government amended the Press and Publications Law in 2013 to regulate electronic news sites the result was the forced closure of 290 “unlicensed” online news portals. Many critics are convinced the move was political. Most of the public corruption cases that were uncovered prior to that notorious amendment were credited to online media. Since then the number of corruption cases made public by the local media has dropped considerably. The people’s right to know was the main casualty of that controversial amendment.

In the past few years the government and the Lower House have passed or amended a number of laws, most notably the Terror Prevention Law that began incriminating anyone for publishing “illegal” material on social media. Since then a number of people, including journalists and political activists, have been detained and tried by the State Security Court under the law. The charges of “hate speech,” “criticizing a friendly state,” and “disturbing relations with a sister state” and others remain vague and give the government a great freedom to choose and pick at its own discretion who to pursue and when.

Over 80 percent of Jordanians have access to the Internet, and a great many of them regularly use social media, particularly Facebook. This represents a challenge for anyone in position of authority who wants to keep a watchful eye on citizens of the country.

The print press is firmly regulated, and by all accounts the majority of Jordanian journalists admit that they practice self-censorship. The same goes for local radio and TV stations. But social media platforms are now a global reality and provide an unprecedented opportunity for free self-expression. Such empowerment is a cause for concern to governments all over the world. In this troubling age of hacking, fake news, and online terror recruitment, everyone is grappling with complicated constitutional, ethical, and legal issues which all revolve around the question of how to preserve the fine balance between people’s right to free speech and the pressing needs of national security?

In democratic societies, any move to tamper with that delicate balance is preceded by public debate at various levels. Freedom of expression, access to information, government accountability, individual privacy and other universal rights are taken seriously. Generally, governments tend to play the national security card in order to limit such rights.

Unfortunately no such debate exists in our society, and we still don’t know if and when we might get a response from our legislature to the government’s plan.

But in any case, no law, no matter how far reaching, can fully put a stop to hate speech, or even murder, theft, and dangerous driving for that matter. Yes, society need laws to prevent all these from happening, but it must also face up to their root causes.

The current spike in religious fanaticism, racism, bigotry, and violence are symptoms of a society in crisis. Just as the challenges of poverty, unemployment, youth suicide, and attacks on public property require mainly economic solutions; effectively tackling hate speech requires much more than just adding more layers of legislation.

In this increasingly globalized and interconnected world, shutting down social media apps, as some reactionary voices have suggested, or stifling them through more laws is an attempt at circumventing people’s natural rights. It’s not the right answer.