Media Divided Over Government Intention To Pass Legislation for Social Media Sites

AKEED, Anwar Ziadat

The government has made no secret of its intention to pass a piece of legislation for social media sites. The subject comes up whenever there is a crisis or issue that preoccupies public opinion. The aim is to "control and monitor what is disseminated via these sites." This raises fears of activists and users of these sites that such a law could be used to restrict freedom of opinion.

Some media outlets have published reports, promoting this government step and paving the way for such a law by conveying demands by members of the public and specialists for a piece of legislation for social media sites. They cite various reasons for this, mainly protecting the freedoms and privacy of individuals and stopping "hate speech."

Other media outlets oppose any such government move by publishing reports, explaining the drawbacks of approving such a law and its impact on freedom of opinion and expression. They note that current legislation can be used to handle each case separately if there is abuse to individuals or infringement of the rights of others.

The split in the media over the need for a piece of legislation for social media sites emerged when the government started announcing that it was considering drafting a piece of legislation for social media sites. Since the beginning of the year, Mohammed Momani, minister of state for media affairs and official spokesman for the government, has spoken openly about this issue.

Momani said that the reasons for considering such a law had to do with "the need for controlling and monitoring what is disseminated via social media sites and determining the responsibility of social media users and the penalties against those who spread hate speech, sedition, and incitement and who harm societal peace. However, if such a piece of legislation is passed, it will not be at the expense of freedoms and will not seek to restrict them."

Social media networks have become an important source of news and information. They can compete with mainstream media, in view of their immediate reporting, in stimulating public opinion and disseminating information.

There are more than 5 million Jordanian users on Facebook, which is equivalent to 50% of the population. This is by the end of the first half of 2017, according to figures published by Internet World Stats, an international site specialized in Internet statistics. Also, the number of Twitter users in Jordan has totaled more than 350,000 by the middle of last year, according to an international study by Pew Research Center.

Al Rai daily published a report under the headline "Demands for Laws To Control Social Media Sites." The headline suggests that the writer is inclined toward supporting "the drafting of a law for social media sites," aimed at "protecting people and their privacy by enacting deterrent laws to prevent abuse to others and violating their privacy," as the newspaper put it.

Al Dustour daily also published a report headlined "Law To Control Social Media Sites: Government Step in the Right Direction." The report stated that "social media sites have become one of the most common tools of destruction in many local and foreign events in view of the random nature of their operation and not controlling it legislatively and technically."

Al Ghad daily ran a report headlined "Law To Control Virtual World Doubted." The report stated the following: "While media and rights persons have rejected government intentions to draft a law for social media sites, fearing new restrictions on media freedoms and freedom of expression, others have voiced support for regulating publishing on social media sites and the need of this new field for a special law."

Al Sabeel newspaper quoted a report carried on the Jordan News Agency (Petra) under the headline "Legal Specialists Call for Code of Conduct on Social Media Sites." The report said the following: "Legal specialists have called for drafting a human code of conduct for social media sites and tightening penalties against verbal abuse to be a deterrent and to end hate speech via social media sites, which has grown recently in the wake of terrorist bombings in the region."

Amman Net ran a report headlined "Social Media Sites Law…Gagging or Control?" The report said: "The government"s intention to enact a law to control social media sites has triggered a broad debate among users of these sites and rights advocates. They stressed that enacting such a law restricts media freedoms and freedom of expression, while others think that these sites need to be regulated."

The website 7iber ran two reports, the first headlined "Proposed Social Media Law: Hiding Government Flaws Behind Other Pieces of Legislation," while the second is closer to an opinion piece headlined "Why Does Jordanian State Fear Social Media?" It pointed out that "under the rubric of combating extremism, hate, and racism, the government is seeking quietly to pass the proposed law, with little criticism by rights organizations."

Khaled Khleifat, a lawyer specialized in press and publications cases, told the Jordanian Media Credibility Monitor (AKEED) that "if the idea is to pass a new law to regulate all actions that arise from the use of social media, I support this. However, if it is to restrict freedoms, then we should take our time and not act hastily." He added: "If there is a plan to pass such a law, there should be provisions to define and address hate speech."

He added that the Cybercrime Law "might not be enough to penalize all criminal actions that could be committed on social media networks. This includes several actions by social media users that are subject to more than one law." He said: "For example, a crime committed on Facebook is subject to the Cybercrime Law, while a crime committed via WhatsApp is subject to the Telecommunications Law. However, if it is via Snapchat, then it is subject to the Penal Code and the Cybercrime Law."

Nabil Ghaishan, a current MP and former chief editor of Al Arab Al Youm newspaper, told AKEED that "the existing laws are sufficient; however, they are scattered." He indicated that "the Press and Publications Law, Penal Code, and Telecommunications Law cover issues in this domain. We do not need new laws."

He added: "A distinction should be made between individual use of social media and electronic newspapers and news websites. The former mostly expresses individual opinions. This is an important part of citizens" right to freedom of expression and must be maintained provided that it does not violate the law. As for electronic sites and newspapers, there are laws to control them."

Nidal Mansour, president of the Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists, told AKEED: "We have no official information on a law for social media. What we are getting are viewpoints. If the issue has to do with hate speech, there is a legislative umbrella to take legal action against persons accused of promoting hate speech, incitement, and other violations. The evidence is that a number of accused persons were previously referred to court. This means that the articles of the law help the authorities to take action against those whom they deem as violators since any penalty or legal action must be based on some legal provisions."

He said: "When the government speaks about a new law, we feel apprehensive and fearful. We start to worry more about freedom of expression. There is a very fine line between freedom of expression and hate speech. When there is no legal definition of hate speech or harming national security, it is easy for the government to use the new law to put pressure on its critics and to do away with freedom of expression."

On government plans to enact a law to control social media sites, Rakan Saaideh, president of the Jordan Press Association, told AKEED that "the government has no choice but to engage positively with key actors to handle the torrent of information produced by social media." He said that "what is happening in Jordan on social media sites happens in all other countries. It is not a Jordanian affair." He added that "ensuring people"s right to know and providing credible information regularly can reduce rumors, fabrications, and lies. This will also reduce hate speech on social media."

Abdullah Obeidat, chairman of the National Guidance and Media Committee in the Lower House of Parliament, told AKEED: "We have not received anything from the government on any new law regulating the work of social media." He added: "I am for new pieces of legislation to reduce violations on social media sites." He indicated that "social media sites have become an environment for character assassination and targeting persons for the purpose of slander. They are also a place for spreading unfounded rumors."

He said that "the existing penalties are insufficient and not deterrent. We need a lot of articles and penalties that cover what is posted on social media. We need stiff penalties to control social media and to reduce abuses and rumors on it."

We should note here that social media sites provide large room for freedom of expression. However, there are irresponsible people who take advantage of these platforms to abuse others.