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Jordan’s Struggle: Navigating the Gap between Constitutional Ideals and Enacted Laws

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 Eng. Saleem Al Batayneh

The annals of history hold an account where the governor of Khurasan, Al-Jarrah bin Abdullah, penned a letter to the Umayyad caliph, Umar bin Abdul-Aziz. In it, he decried, “The people of Khurasan are a people whose subjects are evil, and only the sword and the whip can reform them!” Were the Commander of the Faithful to permit such action, the response from Umayyad Caliph Omar reverberated: “Your letter has reached me wherein you mention that the people of Khurasan have mistreated them and that nothing can reform them except the sword and the whip! You have lied, but justice will fix them, and the truth is the simplest of that among them.”

The juxtaposition of freedom of expression, access to information, and personal privacy are not inherently at odds for both individuals and officials. Within this balance lies citizens’ right to information, critique, and the holding of public figures accountable, under the proviso of avoiding defamation. A distinction between criticism and defamation exists, safeguarding against intrusion into private lives, families, meetings, or campaigns that tarnish honour and reputation.

Global history resolved the nature of divergent opinions and stances long ago. The crux lies in criticism’s methodology – it should target issues, not individuals. The current crisis stems from a population’s uncertainty about their direction and stance.

Alas, the prevailing perception between the state and its dissenters still breeds discord. Quoting out of context or selective representation is akin to a singular crime. This situation is exacerbated by entities that mislead, refusing to accept criticism or alternative perspectives. Consequently, the present atmosphere of apparent contradiction is marked by unresolved queries: every dissimilarity may entail variance, yet not every variance implies a contradiction.

Evidently, Jordan wrestles with an imperfect law, misaligned with its democratic heritage as the region’s inaugural democratic transition pioneer. An appraisal of the cybercrime law underscores the resurgence of authoritarianism. Veiled within the cloak of legal legitimacy, this mentality aims to humble, instill fear, and silence criticism of governmental missteps.

The persistent backing of the cybercrime law underscores an alarming fear among officials. It wields menacing clauses that encroach upon the freedom of expression, endowing the government with discretionary punitive authority, and constraining citizens’ liberty.

Law, at its essence, serves to regulate life and safeguard individuals’ rights. However, when law transforms into a nemesis, it necessitates opposition. The tenets that govern societal progress must be protected.

Frankly, the current situation defies logic! The unfolding events escape reason! Even during the days of martial law, legal restraints never reached such an extreme. The law’s genesis is evident: a tyrannical mindset aiming to fetter citizens and suppress free speech. This maneuver is an evasion of facts and mirrors the Press and Publication Law of 1997. Enacted during the absence of parliament, it precipitated the shuttering of sixteen weekly newspapers within a single day and stifled countless periodicals.

Following criticism from the US State Department regarding the cybercrime law’s outcomes in Jordan, both Sky Line International and V-Dem – an independent research institute linked to the University of Gothenburg in Sweden – cautioned against a law that muzzles voices, quashes public freedoms, and precludes accountability.

While Article 15 of the Jordanian constitution promotes freedom of expression, the widening disparity between constitutional principles and their legislative application raises concerns. It is almost as if the law aims to deconstruct with one hand what the Constitution had built with the other.

This unprecedented predicament of intellectual confusion demands an earnest effort to find common ground between the state and its citizens. The current state of affairs reflects two individuals speaking diametrically opposing languages. Each language shapes its unique way of thinking and reasoning. In response, we must find a capable translator to reconcile us, or each of us must learn the language of the other.

The question itself is weary from repetition, and the ultimate question lingers: What good is a just judiciary if the laws themselves are unjust and fail to pursue truth and justice? How many countries suffered under the grip of security, with freedoms forsaken and constitutions violated, plunging them into chaos and instability? In contrast, how many nations upheld their constitutions and embraced true stability?

The words of American poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, author of “Life in the Forest,” echo here: “A free person in any society has a duty to break unjust laws. A free life under an unjust government is a prison for those who seek justice, and laws that bridle the mouths destroy themselves.”

Al Batayneh is a former member of the Jordanian Parliament