Beyond Jordan’s TikTok Ban

Image courtesy Ameya Nagarajan, based on image by motionstock from Pixabay, under a Pixabay license.

This piece was first published by SMEX, on January 19, 2023, and was written by Zeinab Ismail. An edited version is republished here, under a content-sharing agreement.

TikTok is still banned in Jordan, a month after the government blocked the platform to limit the spread of live footage documenting workers’ protests in Ma’an. The Chinese company that owns the app, ByteDance, made no direct or public comment about the ban but confirmed that it is in talks with the authorities to “continue serving the millions of users” in Jordan.

In mid-December, truck drivers took to the streets to protest the rise in fuel prices in the Ma’an governorate, to the south of Amman, and were broadcasting the movement live on TikTok. Taxi and public bus owners also took part in the protests, and shops in several cities also held strikes. A senior police officer and three policemen were killed.

On December 16, 2022, Jordanian authorities announced a temporary ban on TikTok due to “misuse by some” in addition to the “platform’s failure to address posts inciting violence and chaos,” according to a statement published on the Facebook page of the Public Security Directorate.

The directorate warned that the Cybercrime Unit is monitoring content shared on social media platforms with an eye out for hate speech and “incitement to vandalism, aggression against law enforcement agencies, damage to property, and road blocking.”

Isolating protesters from the world

News about internet shutdowns and how TikTok stopped working began circulating as soon as the protests broke out. In an interview with SMEX, Raya Sharbain, Jordan-based digital rights expert and advocate, stated that Ma’an Governorate residents suffered not only from the TikTok ban, but also from complete internet shutdowns in Ma’an and Karak during the day, which continued until December 26.

TikTok played a key role in reporting news related to the protests across different regions within Jordan. It also carried the reach of the events beyond national borders. A Jordanian activist who preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons revealed to SMEX that: “News websites in Jordan are mostly loyal to local authorities and act as their spokespeople. Therefore, we filmed videos and shared them on social media, mainly on TikTok, since it facilitates content dissemination and sharing. Our alternative solutions provoked them [the authorities] into shutting down the internet and banning TikTok, thus keeping us isolated from the world.”

In fact, journalists were following the news and the latest developments through TikTok rather than local media outlets, as Sawsan Abu Al Sondos, a journalist residing in Amman, confirmed in a statement to SMEX. She explained that TikTok “is a popular, video-based platform that is user-friendly for people of all ages and backgrounds wishing to express their opinion.”

Due to the restrictions imposed by authorities, people use Virtual Private Network (VPN) software to circumvent the ban and post their videos. Sharbain affirmed that TikTok’s popularity in Jordan made it the go-to tool used by protesters to report events and updates.

According to the Public Security Directorate, “TikTok did not properly address the misuse of the platform by people who praised and disseminated acts of violence or called for chaos.” However, the Directorate did not clarify whether or not it had contacted the platform about these issues.

In an interview with local media on January 8, the Jordanian Minister of Government Communications Faisal Shboul stated that “the government is having ongoing technical discussions with TikTok, in an attempt to control the content on the platform.” He confirmed that the government will not lift the ban any time soon “unless content-control conditions are met.” Shboul also warned that “account owners will be held responsible for comments added on their posts.”

Jordanian Minister of Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship Ahmad Hanandeh confirmed on January 15 that there is no news about lifting the TikTok ban in the kingdom, and the app remains banned in Jordan, according to what we documented through the ban test conducted on the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI).

TikTok indirectly confirmed to SMEX that the application was banned and that they’re discussing solutions with Jordanian authorities: “We believe that through our continuous communication, we can come to a decision that would allow TikTok to continue serving the millions of users in Jordan who have found in the platform a space for creative expression.”

In its belated response, TikTok appeared to be informing Jordanian authorities that it is indeed monitoring content, confirming it would take “appropriate action against content that violates its Community Guidelines.” It also added that it would strictly and proactively remove any violating content in Jordan. In its response, TikTok stated: “According to our latest report, a total of 310,724 videos have been removed in Jordan, 86.6% of which were removed before receiving any views.”

Is it legal to ban TikTok in Jordan?

The decision to ban the TikTok app and website has elicited different opinions regarding its legality, especially since it restricts citizens’ freedom of expression. Lawyer Enas Zayed, who specializes in Jordanian constitutional law, told SMEX that the internet shutdowns and TikTok ban are entirely inconsistent with the Jordanian Constitution and law. The latter clearly supports freedom of speech and expression, stating that restricting these freedoms must be based on laws rather than decisions issued by an executive authority.

Zayed noted that Jordan has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which stresses that freedom of speech and expression is absolute and that no exceptions shall be made except within narrow limits.

“The ban prevents people from expressing their opinions naturally on the application,” said Zayed. “If a legal violation exists on the platform, authorities should refer the perpetrator to the judiciary. But such collective bans deprive individuals who do not express political opinions in the first place of their right to express anything, not just their opinion on the strikes.”

Restricting the digital space

People are increasingly relying on social media to express their opinions due to traditional media’s refusal to convey their voices. Seeing these alternative outlets as a threat, authorities resort to restricting the remaining public spaces available to citizens.

Sawsan Abu Al Sondos pointed out that her work, which included monitoring the media’s recent response to the truck drivers’ strike organized last December, revealed an almost complete absence of media coverage. The role of the local press should be to raise the voice of protesters and people affected by government decisions. Field correspondents and photographers were also absent at the onset of the events, according to Abu Al Sondos.

A wave of arrests targeting local officials and activists took place in parallel with the internet shutdowns and TikTok ban. Security agencies arrested the former mayor of Ma’an Majid al-Sharari, and accused him of “provoking sectarian and denominational strife, inciting conflict between components of the nation, and spreading hate speech.”

They also arrested journalist and political activist Khaled Turki Al-Majali, who was accused of “incitement as well as libel and slander through electronic means,” and activist Alaa Al-Malkawi, whose wife revealed that the reason for his arrest was a post he shared on Facebook.

In 2020, internet shutdowns in Jordan caused losses estimated at about USD 4.9 billion. In addition to constituting a flagrant violation of human rights, internet shutdowns cause massive economic losses in the country and limit progress in the digital field, which several Arab countries, including Jordan, are planning and aspiring to expand.

What is more, internet shutdowns have negatively impacted the education sector in the city of Ma’an, where sources revealed to SMEX that due to bad weather conditions, Al-Hussein Bin Talal University decided to hold lectures online, not in person. However, poor internet services and frequent interruptions prevented students from attending classes.

“This is not the first-time authorities have resorted to internet shutdowns under flimsy pretexts such as reducing fraud in exams,” stated SMEX Executive Director Mohamad Najem. “Interruptions in live-streaming services, bans on websites and applications, and internet shutdowns have multiplied in recent years, the most recent being in Jordan,” Najm added.

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