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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Pushing the borders: What Jordan’s retrenchment of free speech means for them and us

A Jordanian government effort to stifle comedic dissent raises the question of when regulation borderlines censorship and how the U.S., as an advocate for free democracy, should respond appropriately.

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Amman, the capital of Jordan, is pictured on March 18, 2007.

In Jordan, the satire page “Al-Hudood,” which literally translates to “borders” or “limits” in Arabic, did what almost every political comedy group has done at one point — they released cartoons poking fun at the grossly rich. Al-Hudood’s cartoons and articles centered on the recent Jordanian royal wedding, a display of opulence in a country pervaded by wealth inequality. One comic replayed the dynamics of the wedding but in the context of Jordanian social division whereby the wedding guests, clad in rags, threw their last pieces of bread to the new couple. But it seems the only people who found it funny were the Jordanian public. Unsurprisingly, the rich and powerful friends of the newlyweds looked askance at this humor. Within days, “Al-Hudood” was shut down and journalists were arrested.

Here is what’s pernicious about this crackdown: Satire is democratic. It is exactly the right to freedom of expression and freedom of dissent that lies at the crux of democracy. That’s why popular newspapers like The Onion or cinematic masterpieces by Sasha Baron Cohen feel so fundamentally free. They remind us that it is our right to dissent, regardless of the palatability of our dissent. Whether or not our expression is wrapped in the packaging of diplomatic rhetoric or a crude political cartoon, our right to expression is not up for anyone else to decide on.

What does this retrenchment in free speech mean for Jordanian democracy? It means that the kingdom will continue to pull back from its promises to uphold democratic norms by using this legislation as a precedent, just like it has for the past decade. In 2012, cybersecurity laws cinched the rights of journalists. Last year, the Jordanian government banned TikTok in December after a police officer was killed in protests, demanding exemptions on heavy gas and oil taxes. In 2023, a similar story was repeated but now at a more sweeping scale. The recent legislation, which King Abdullah II passed into law on Aug. 12, will try to expand the parliament’s control of media. It could be used to embolden a kingdom that wants to come down hard on those who push up against the boundaries of social permissibility.  

The new legislation has more than just comedians and journalists biting their nails. Jordanian activists have reported that the immorality” clauses of the legislation have put a target directly on the head of Jordan’s underground LGBT community. The U.N. Human Rights Watch has raised alarms that the legislation’s vague language could mean a looming threat for a community already toeing the line of conservative Jordanian society.

This news is all the more concerning for a country with a poor human rights track record. As of 2020, the kingdom sits at a low No.118 in the index of democratic nations. And it seems that Jordan is only continuing to slip behind. For the U.S., a nation that has espoused itself as a vanguard of democracy, red flags have begun rising. Vedant Patel, U.S. Department of State spokesperson, denounced the recent cybersecurity law for its “vague definitions and concepts” that could “undermine Jordan’s homegrown economic and political reforms efforts.”

From now on, the U.S. will need to take an active role in amplifying the democratic dissent in Jordan. For the last 69 years, we have sent more than 26 billion USD to Jordan in the form of aid and modernization programs. But, despite receiving ample assistance to modernize, Jordan is still flouting the norms that are central to U.S. values. Perhaps this means the U.S. is going to have to put its foot down and refuse to give aid to a nation that consistently rebuffs our demands for Jordan to liberalize. If it does not call out Jordan, the U.S. risks tipping into hypocrisy: We have repeatedly condemned China, Russia and many other nations’ archaic free speech restrictions, so the world will smell the double standard behind our choice to simply ignore Jordan’s flagrant disregard of free speech. But it will not be a surprise, I argue, to see a realist-minded U.S. abandon its liberal ideals in favor of its strategic interest in having an ally in a volatile region — even if that means putting our rubber stamp on authoritarianism. Of course, it has before: supporting strategically pertinent countries like Israel, despite a surge in Israeli-Palestinian violence, or Saudi Arabia, even though it continues to abuse and murder African migrants.

Until the U.S. government straightens out its priorities — either sticking to its principles or continuing to back a state for strategic reasons — the rest of us also have a decision to make. Where do we stand? Tufts University is still highly integrated with Jordan. Tufts’ Feed the Future Nutrition Innovation Lab in Jordan works to address inadequacies in Jordanian health care. Do we continue to support the U.S. but address our grievances with Jordan, or perhaps turn a blind eye in hopes it will make everything pass over more soundly?