English Independent Panel on Human Rights

Policies of Consecutive Governments Undermine Independent Civic Action in Jordan 

Jordan is not moving towards broadening the space of independent civic engagement and strengthening its three pillars (freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association) in compliance with international rules and legal standards, to which Jordan has always stated its firm commitment. On the contrary, the current space is shrinking to its smallest size since the early years that followed the end of martial law in 1989. Furthermore, the next few years are expected to witness further setbacks, creating a stable state of political and social standoff

​The Independent Panel on Human Rights
(authored by Fadi Al-Qadi)

June 2017

Policies of Consecutive Governments Undermine Independent Civic Action in Jordan

Polict Analysis

(unofficial translation, original Arabic edition is available here)

1. Introduction

1.1. The independent civic action is often referred to as an activity that is not under direct control and supervision of a government (state) and is not carried out by its apparatuses, entities or staff in their professional capacities. It aims at enriching the cultural, intellectual and social contributions to public affairs, including the oversight of the state’s performance, expressing opinions on public affairs, and leading peaceful initiatives to express the opinion of the society at large or a group of people on a certain topic.

1.2. The independent civic engagement is primarily known to strengthen the pillars of a society, governed by civic rule. The term “civic rule” here does not necessarily refer to the form of political rule and rotation of power (if applicable), but refers to and encompasses all forms of political, economic and social relations, interconnected by civic tools (the constitution, law, written provisions, guarantees safeguarded by the independent judiciary, pluralism of political parties, free press, associations that are free from the government’s control as well as non-governmental organizations among others).

1.3. Examples of independent civic engagement that is not under the control or supervision of the government include: voluntary-based initiatives to preserve forest trees in Jordan; youth groups voluntarily coordinating efforts to advocate for a legal amendment, reducing the minimum age of a candidate in parliamentary elections; establishing independent associations for artists that create free spaces for creative thinking; establishing non-governmental organizations specialized in development; a group of people taking the initiative and imposing pressure on the state apparatuses through protests and other peaceful means; establishing watchdogs and carrying out research to monitor the government’s commitment to combat unemployment; establishing forums to encourage and activate discussion on certain issues, among others.

1.4. Independent civic engagement is underpinned by three basic guarantees: freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association (establishing societies and associations among others).

1.5. The civic engagement space is the actual framework through which the scope, efficacy and possibility of implementing activities are measured (as mentioned above). In this regard, the space is not associated with mathematical hypotheses, and there are no limitations on the directions it can take (vertical or horizontal).

1.6. Based on the aforementioned paragraph, the space, along with its scope and limits, can have a great impact on the nature, type and scope of independent civic engagement and activities.

1.7. Apparently, Jordan is not moving towards broadening the space of independent civic engagement and strengthening its three pillars (freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association) in compliance with international rules and legal standards, to which Jordan has always stated its firm commitment. On the contrary, the current space is shrinking to its smallest size since the early years that followed the end of martial law in 1989. Furthermore, the next few years are expected to witness further setbacks, creating a stable state of political and social standoff, where the basic human rights, and primarily the economic rights of broad social groups, are not respected.

2. Current Obstacles

2.1. Legislative and Practical Restrictions Undermine the Independent Civic Space

2.1.1. On the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly The Jordanian Constitution and the law known as the Public Assembly Law for the year 2004 (amended in 2011) both safeguard Jordanians’ right to convene public meetings (defined in the law as meetings convened to discuss matters pertaining to the public policy of a state). However, in the last few years, administrative officers have been typically granted discretionary power, enabling them to ban public meetings and deny permissions for peaceful marches without justification. Furthermore, there is no mechanism (for example, judicial) that enables the other party to appeal or complain about a decision by the administrative officer, which is not documented in writing in the first instance. According to the current norms, it is assumed that decisions to ban meetings, taken by the administrative officers, do not exist (because they violate the law). However, the end result is the same: some sort of (actual and not implicit) approval from the administrative officer is needed to convene a public meeting (for example, the hotel hosting the meeting is informed that it is not possible to host it, and that it will be legally prosecuted should it fail to comply in an undocumented manner, meaning without a written statement that is sent in accordance with pre-set procedures). It is not enough for the state to claim that the problem lies in increased authorities and discretionary power, granted to administrative officers (for example), to shed its responsibility and that of its representatives in the executive branch. The freedom of assembly is largely restricted, making public meetings and marches “exceptions” and not the rule. This apparently systematically undermines participation and freedom in the political and social spheres, which, in turn, undermines their very core: free and effective dialogue on public affairs. The recurrent practices of administrative officers leave no doubt that the state, which bears a responsibility as the leader, is aware of these procedures, but failed to take action and end practices that violate the provisions and essence of the law. Furthermore, the executive authority did not take any punitive measures with regards to any of these practices, but continued to allow administrative officers to use their authorities and ban peaceful public meetings and marches.

2.1.2. On the Freedom of Association (Establishing Societies) Freedom of association is not confined to registering societies and non-governmental organizations, which may or may not receive local or foreign funding to implement activities and achieve objectives. This right extends beyond this limited sense to include empowering individuals in the society to establish any form of associations, clubs, unions, federations, and even professional associations and organizations that address the interests of certain groups, whether registered or else. The existing organizational and legislative framework allows the executive branch to practice significant control over the establishment of associations. For example, according to the Labor Law, associations are subject to pre-licensing, as they are required to submit an application to the laborers and employers associations’ registrar at the Ministry of Labor, who must issue a decision within a maximum period of 30 days, as per the law.

If the registrar rejects the application without revealing reasons, the decision is deemed valid, according to the interpretation of the Jordanian judiciary, which treats every “perfect” administrative decision in line with the concept of legitimacy valid. If a person claims otherwise, he/she is asked to present evidence. Furthermore, the law does not allow the plurality of associations, meaning workers in the same sector or profession cannot acquire a license for two associations or more. Voluntary associations that are not registered are also illegal. Non-governmental organizations and non-profit societies, which are active in numerous fields ranging from political freedoms to encouraging social cohesion and charity, are also subject to the government’s control more than ever before. The Societies Law (the Societies Law No 22 for the year 2009 is valid now) is used as a legislative tool in this regard. The majority of workers in these organizations often complain about unjustified legal restrictions, whether in the terms and conditions of registration, the field of work, or receiving funding to support their activities, given that the funding is contingent on the government’s approval. Many organizations complained about the government’s rejection of their funding applications without revealing any justification. The law does not recognize non-registered groups whatsoever, which can either be voluntary-based groups comprised of activists and individuals willing to address a certain issue, or groups seeking to create a space for public discussion and reflections, bringing together people who share the same outlook. Practicing any activity with these groups is subject to legal prosecution.

2.1.3. On Freedom of Expression Practically speaking, the Jordanian state does not safeguard the right to free expression, and often takes measures that undermine and violate this very right. In addition, realities on the ground indicate that the too many restrictions on this right have rendered it meaningless, while the restrictions have become deeply-rooted in the legislative framework and governmental practices. The scope of legislations, imposing restrictions on the freedom of expression, is wide and includes numerous laws, such as: the Law of Press and Publications; the Cyber Crime Law; the Information Technology Crime Law; Penal Code and other laws. In previous years, the executive authority used numerous legal and legislative tools to prosecute individuals for their peaceful expression of opinion, namely on social media. It has also prosecuted journalists for their writings, either on the media outlets for which they work or their personal social media accounts. In addition, activists and bloggers on social media have been prosecuted because of their opinions. Individuals have been repeatedly charged with criminal charges by the executive authority, because of the content they have published or written. Charges vary and primarily include “undermining the regime”, “insulting the state”, “harming the country’s relations with brotherly states”, “offending religion” and “lese majeste”. Executive authorities sought to take advantage of the political and security turmoil in the region, which has greatly affected Jordan where a number of terrorist attacks took place, and the reaction of some social media users to certain events, such as the assassination of writer Nahed Hattar in September, 2016, to impose further restrictions on the right to free expression. While the government used “countering hate speech” as a pretext to stifle free speech, the Independent Panel on Human Rights stated back then that Jordan is not in short of legislations that restrict freedom of opinion and right to expression, which makes the government’s pursuit to enact yet another legislation to fight hate speech unjustified. The assassination of writer Nahed Hattar in September, 2016, was a clear example on the grave consequences of the arbitrary use of legislative tools to stifle freedom of expression. The government took the lead and arrested the late writer, inciting the public opinion against him in accordance with the Crime Prevention Law. It also referred him to the public prosecutor of the State Security Court in accordance with the provisions of the Penal code, accusing him of “inciting sectarian strife”. However, in an ideal situation, the late writer should have been protected instead from the “hate speech and incitement” against him, because he had simply expressed an opinion. In line with restrictions on the freedom of expression, similar other restrictions are imposed on the right to access information. Consecutive governments have repeatedly “denied or blocked access” and made information inaccessible to the public. People are the primary recipient of a government’s information (services), delivered through the work and services of the public apparatus, and they are either positively or negatively affected by this information. As defined by the United Nations, the right to information is “the individual’s right to safely access information from a public entity, which is obliged to provide information to him/her.” Although the legislative framework, intended to protect the right to information (which is the Law on the Right to Access information for the year 2007) regulates the public’s access to information, the very essence of these rules are problematic. Instead of obliging the state to provide information in a voluntary and public manner, making access easier for the citizenry, the rules oblige individuals to demand access to information. In addition, other laws, such as the Law on Protecting the State’s Documents and Secrets, impose restrictions on access to information. Gags undermine the public’s right to know and discuss issues, especially those concerning the public. As long as they do not touch on the details of private and confidential security or police investigations, these issues must be discussed and examined in public.

2.2. The Rule of Law and Accountability

2.2.1. The arbitrary use of discretionary power is one of the main practical problems, hindering independent civic engagement in the country. As long as there are no written and documented provisions, and legal justifications related to law enforcement are not revealed, the government will continue to have the upper hand in all issues pertaining to the pillars of civic engagement (assembly, expression and association).

2.2.2. In particular, the continuous use of administrative authorities in an illegal manner to ban public meetings without accountability hinders the natural free growth of civic space.

2.2.3. In addition, trying civilians before military and exceptional courts without respecting principles of fair trials and the right to be tried before civil judges undermines the rule of law. In previous years, civilians were tried in accordance with legal provisions to “prevent terrorism” in the Penal code or the law on the Prevention of Terrorism because of their opinions. Many of the actions, mentioned in the law, fall under the jurisdiction of the State Security Court.

2.2.4. At the moment, real accountability is missing in Jordan. This could have resulted from the lack of institutional mechanisms, or the long-standing attitude of political decision makers, who have turned a blind eye to the violations both, in theory and practice. Consequently, this has made perpetrators enjoy implicit de-facto impunity thanks to the state’s (implicit) tolerance of such violations.

2.2.5. Prepared and launched by the government coordinator for human rights in 2016, the National Comprehensive Plan on Human rights, for example, reveals that having multiple mechanisms to receive and follow up on complaints from citizens led to numerous difficulties in accountability. In fact, all of these mechanisms, which are supposedly activated at the moment, lack a solid base of regulations and bylaws that enable them to actually practice real accountability.

3. Measuring the Independent Civic Space in Light of Aforementioned Realities

3.1.1. The three pillars protecting the independent civic space are interconnected (assembly, expression and association) to a point where they are inseparable.

3.1.2. For example, when the freedom of expression is undermined due to aforementioned restrictions, the idea of a public assembly is made “sensitive”, limited and futile, simply because it intends to address public policy issues, which often involves criticizing the government’s performance and thinking of ways to rectify it through possible peaceful means that impose public pressure. As restrictions on the freedom of expression grow in number and scope, opportunities to convene public meetings and assemblies to challenge these restrictions diminish.

3.1.3. When seen from a different perspective, increased restrictions on the right to establish societies, associations and federations will negatively affect the right to expression and assembly. The organized assembly helps people effectively plan, coordinate efforts and make use of available resources to the fullest, enabling them to capitalize on each individual’s capacities and skills and direct them towards collective action. As access to independent and free assembly is undermined, the effectiveness of any action or activity seeking to reverse restrictions on freedom of expression and confront authorities through peaceful public means is also reduced.

3.1.4. Furthermore, undermining the space to practice the three pillars makes protecting all other rights a difficult task, even impossible at times. In fact, the economic rights are the first set of rights to suffer from any setback in the aforementioned spaces, as they become meaningless. It is bizarre how the three pillars are believed to affect “political rights” only, given that political and economic rights are inseparable.

3.1.5. In addition, when this civic space diminishes, the independent role of civil society organizations is significantly undermined. They are made to depend on the government, which then determines their role and contribution in the public sphere. Restrictions imposed by consecutive governments on the activities of these organizations limit their ability to practice oversight on projects and law enforcement (for example). The impact is two-fold: the government loses the opportunity to measure the impact of its projects and plans, and the sustainability and work of these organizations are hindered.

4. Consequences of Limited Independent Civic Space

4.1. The Government Becomes the Sole Decision Maker Shaping the Future of Individuals

4.1.1. Because of the sheer volume of activities undertaken by the state’s public apparatuses, it is only natural that tens or even hundreds of decisions are taken on a daily basis, directly affecting the affairs of individuals in the society. When public discussion, or ways to take action and challenge, oppose or even effectively criticize the government’s decisions do not exist, public authorities are likely to continue to take decisions without considering the opinions and interests of people. Even with the good intentions of public authorities and their representatives, decisions are taken according to a bureaucratic technical approach, in which the public’s interests are not necessarily the paramount consideration.

4.2. Lack of Transparency and Accountability

4.2.1. The government’s performance naturally becomes out of people’s reach for a number of reasons: undermined capacity to effectively criticize the government’s performance by individuals and the society at large due to lack of social oversight mechanisms, including oversight by non-governmental organizations, and denied access to information; increased restrictions on freedom of expression; restrictions on public assemblies (whether by law or by illegal practices). Not only do these restrictions act as barriers, preventing people from addressing (interacting with) the government’s performance, but they can also cause harm to any person, seeking to (critically) interact with this performance.

4.3. Government Imposes even Further Restrictions

4.3.1. With every setback in the rights to expression, assembly and free association, authorities find it easy to impose even further restrictions on the activities of individuals in all three spheres. Consequently, an inverse correlation is found, where every time the space diminishes, the scope of restrictions grows wider, especially given the semi-organic interdependence between all three freedoms.

4.4. A State of Fear and Apathy among the Public Deepens

4.4.1. Refraining from voluntary participation in activities, seeking to practice oversight on the government’s performance or criticize or peacefully oppose the government, becomes justified. Existing restrictions through laws that violate deeply-rooted international standards on all three freedoms (expression, assembly and association) or illegal practices are associated with a punitive framework, including fines, detention or jail. In many cases, these measures include “harassment”, making people even more worried about the risks they may face as a result of their activism.

4.4.2. In light of the absence of social solidarity networks, intended to challenge any arbitrary measures against people contributing to public affairs by expressing opinions, organizing public assemblies or establishing independent associations, these individuals turn into forgotten figures, who can be easily harmed without any ramification or hassle.

4.4.3. When people refrain from the active engagement in public affairs, we lose any chance or space to discuss risks affecting the economic and social rights of the people.

4.4.4. In short, all of these factors lead to a very significant setback in the use of legitimate peaceful protest mechanisms. This, in turn, leads to an overwhelming feeling of despair among ever-growing segments of the public with regards to development and political liberalism.

4.5. The Clout of Political and Economic Elites Monopolizing Political, Economic and Social Spaces Grows

4.5.1. An environment where people are not engaged in independent civic activity is mainly known to “grow in the dark”. Challenging illegal and unfair practices is rare, and even when some unconventional spaces exist (such as social media channels), they are often “ineffective”, as the criticism is neither systematic nor based on facts. Instead, what we very often witness is an endless exchange of insults. In a legal framework where criticism is mainly penalized, practices that violate and undermine principles of justice, equality and equal opportunities are granted impunity.

4.5.2. However, the growing influence of the so-called “elites” in the political, economic and social spheres is primarily associated with the power of certain individuals. For a reason or another, they benefit from the lack of public oversight on the government’s performance and systematic accountability. Consequently, due to lack of equal opportunities, the unjustified use of discretionary power and selective implementation of the law, these individuals enjoy a preferential treatment in a manner that constitutes illegal discrimination.