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Counteracting Hate Speech

The rhetoric of xenophobia, racism, hate, Islamophobia, discrimination, and ethnic and sectarian divides - “hate speech” in its broader sense - constitute the narratives underlying the many conflicts facing Jordan nowadays. Many have indeed voiced their concern over the end of a “model of peaceful co-existence” and the beginning of a new “dark” era for the Kingdom — a clear example of which stands in the recent shooting of prominent Jordanian writer and cartoonist Nahed Hattar. Indicted for sharing a cartoon that allegedly incited sectarian strife and insulted Islam, Hatter was killed by a gunman outside the court where he was facing charges. The episode gave rise to mounting tensions in the country and throughout the Arab world, resulting in a severe polarization in both in the public and virtual spheres. Many condemned Hattar's killing as a "heinous crime” or even “a clear case of intellectual terror” which endangered freedom of thought and opinion as well as the right of expression. Others celebrated the writer’s death as a just punishment for his blasphemy, and insult against Islam, attacking him for being Christian and a secularist. Against this backdrop, Jordan’s spokesperson for the Ministry of Media call for efforts to eliminate all rhetoric that is discriminatory in nature or that promotes hatred as well as to fight extremism (and therefore hate speech as a whole) “not with a bullet but with a better idea” - at the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) Group of Friends Ministerial Meeting held in New York last September 2016 - could not be more timely. In its struggle with hate speech and attempt to contain it, however, Jordan’s government significantly curtailed freedom of expression - and that of media in particular - detaining and bringing charges against activists, dissidents, and journalists, often relying on broad and vague provisions of the country’s counterterrorism law. Amended in 2014, it added up to the national law already criminalizing speech deemed critical of the king, foreign countries, government officials and institutions, as well as Islam and speech considered to defame others. The 2015 penal code overhaul proposed by the Ministry of Justice only provided alternatives to imprisonment, such as community service, but did not amend or remove articles long-used by authorities to limit free expression. Considering all the above, in an attempt to ‘mitigate’ such excessively strict measures, and in line with the recommendations of the Rabat’s Plan of Action to strategic responses to incitement to hatred both non-legal and legal in nature, Out&About (henceforth O&A) in partnership with Partners-Jordan (henceforth PJ) are hereby proposing an initiative to induce a tightening of Jordanian criminal law to more clearly define hate speech and to ensure the implementation of clear and stricter penalties in cases of hate speech, together with the creation of a Jordanian Hate Speech Observatory, following the lead example of other Arab countries — Bahrain, Morocco and Tunisia. The work completed through the proposed Project addresses the imperative to ‘educate’ Jordanian people about hate speech and what differentiates it from freedom of speech, so as to pave the way for a more nuanced, conscious and attentive use of language ‘in the streets’, media, and social media platforms. As such, the initiative is expected to ultimately benefit the Jordanian civil society as a whole in that it will represent the first country case of an organization specifically devoting its efforts to reverse the hate speech-trend and create/strengthen a culture of peace, harmony and social inclusion, fostering tolerance, empathy, and mutual respect. This is perfectly in line with the Policy Conclusions (Section C) of the ‘Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence’, according to which legally responding to the challenges of hate speech only represents a part of a larger toolbox — which should also envisage “initiatives coming from various sectors of societygeared towards a plurality of policies, practices and measures nurturing social consciousness, tolerance and understanding change and public discussion”. With this view, the overall goal of the project is to tighten the Jordanian criminal law ensuring the implementation of a clear definition for hate speech under law and stricter penalties whenever a case of hate speech is detected, as a way to reduce the cases of hate speech in public and virtual life. Relying on a holistic approach, three specific tactical objectives have also been identified: (1) to suggest a clear and specific definition of hate speech (and its practices) to be submitted to the Parliament for approval by June 2017; (2) to create a statistical Observatory and an interactive electronic Observatory (on multiple social media platforms) by the second half of 2017; (3) to conduct awareness campaigns through various media channels, parallel to capacity-building training workshops targeting 100 people active within the digital, radio and television media fields, over the two-year period 2017-2018.

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