January 2, 2018 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1367

Jordanian Journalists, Politicians Receive Death Threats On Social Media

January 2, 2018 | By Z. Harel*
Jordan | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1367

In September 2017, death threats appeared on social media against two liberal Jordanian journalists: Zuleikha Abu Risha and Basel Rafayeh, as well as against a parliament member from the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Dima Tahboub. These threats prompted a renewed debate about a phenomenon that has become prevalent in Jordan in the last few years, namely the use of social media as an arena for mutual sparring and mudslinging between liberal and Islamist circles, and also gave rise to renewed complaints about the authorities' failure to address the danger of incitement on social media .

Such incitement was particularly intense in August-September 2016, when death threats appeared on social media against journalist Nahed Hattar after he posted on his Facebook page an anti-ISIS cartoon that was perceived as offensive to Islam.[1]Apparently, it was this incitement that ultimately led to Hattar's assassination on September 25 of that year. The murder sparked outrage in Jordan and condemnation of the authorities' impotence to address the threat of extremist discourse.[2]

Following the murder and the condemnations, the authorities promised to crack down on social media incitement. On September 27, Jordanian government spokesman Muhammad Al-Momani said that social media had become "a hotbed of despicable discourse" and promised that the government and its apparatuses would show no leniency towards "those who spread hate speech and stir up [negative] emotions against others." He added that the growing phenomenon of hate speech mandates finding ways to put an end to violence and terror. Then justice minister Bassam Talhouni promised to take legal measures against anyone using social media to spread hate speech in society.[3]

In the days after the murder, the security forces reportedly arrested several social media activists and shut down accounts disseminating incitement to violence.[4] Nahed Hattar's assassin was apprehended and tried, and sentenced to death. In November 2016, the General Security Administration announced that its cybercrime unit had begun monitoring offensive online content.[5] In early 2017, Muhammad Al-Momani announced that the government planned to pursue targeted legislation to establish accountability for content posted on social media and to shield society from hate speech.[6]

Today, one year after Hattar's murder, it seems that the Jordanian government has shelved the initiative for targeted legislation. Instead, in September 2017 the Legislation and Opinion Bureau at the Prime Minister's Office drafted an amendment to the cybercrime law which, for the first time, criminalizes the spreading of online hate speech and penalizes offenders.

Cartoon in Jordanian daily: social media as a murder weapon. Source: Al-Ghad (Jordan), January 6, 2017

This report reviews the incitement against liberal journalists Zuleikha Abu Risha and Basel Rafayeh and against MP Dima Tahboub, as well as the emerging legislation initiatives in Jordan to eliminate hate speech and incitement on social media.

Criticism Of Religious Initiative Sparks Wave Of Incitement, Death Threats

In advance of 'Eid Al-Adha in late August 2017 the Al-Zarqaa municipality implemented an initiative for hanging signs bearing the names of Allah from the city's electric poles. This was one of the first activities of the new mayor, Ali Abu Al-Sukkar, who is also secretary-general of the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. The initiative sparked a wave of criticism on social media, where users from Jordan's liberal camp expressed apprehension that it marked the beginning of transforming Al-Zarqaa, the second largest metropolis in the kingdom, into a religious city, and protested against the prioritization of this initiative over dealing with the city's ongoing problems.

Among the critics were two prominent liberals: journalist Basel Rafayeh, and journalist and author Zuleikha Abu Risha. On his Facebook page, Rafayeh mocked the initiative, calling it "a blatant move of religious propaganda that has no connection to the religion" and noting that it was "the beginning of the official countdown to the establishment of the Islamic emirate of Al-Zarqaa."[7] Ms. Abu Risha noted sarcastically, "The Al-Zarqaa municipality has unveiled the most effective solution to the city's problems," and added that the mayor had "opened the gates of wellbeing, security, and piety."[8]

Basel Rafayeh and Zuleikha Abu Risha. Source:, September 6, 2017

Threats On Social Media: These Atheists Must Not Provoke People Over Religion – Like Slain Journalist Nahed Hattar Did

Abu Risha's and Rafayeh's Facebook posts were met with rage on social media; the height of this rage was a post by Al-Zarqaa Muslim Brotherhood supporter Ahmad Al-Barshat Al-Zyoud that stated: "Basel Rafayeh and Zuleikha Abu Risha: do not provoke people with their religion, as we often advised [assassinated journalist] Nahed [Hattar]."[9] The Jordanian English-language daily Jordan Times also reported on another, similar post by another individual: "Phenomenon: Are Basel and Zuleikha practicing their atheist ideologies only against the Islamic religion, or [does] it include other religions?"[10]

Facebook post threatening Abu Risha and Rafayeh, posted by Abu-Risha; the original post was removed by Facebook after Abu Risha and Rafayeh filed complaints with the security apparatuses. Source:, September 3, 2017.

Rafayeh: The Incitement Draws Its Strength From The Establishment's Growing Religious Extremism

Abu Risha and Rafayeh took the threats seriously, particularly because of the September 2016 assassination of journalist Nahed Hattar. On his Facebook page, Rafayeh wrote that this was not the first time he had received a death threat, and that Hattar's assassin had planned to kill him as well. He added that the threats stemmed from the growing religious extremism of the establishment itself: "I am writing things I have been repressing for months. It was I who was the first candidate for assassination, not the martyr Nahed Hattar. The killer said this explicitly during the trial. Had it not been for the cartoon Hattar shared, which gave [the killer] an excuse, [the killer] would have stalked me and shot me in the head... I write this after two incidents of incitement and two threats [have been directed at me], which I have reported to the General Security [Administration]... Now the incitement is directed at me and at author Zuleikha Abu Risha, and it is fed by the growing religious extremism of the administration, not of some man or woman who prays in their village, city, or neighborhood..."[11]

In an article he posted on his Facebook page, which was reposted by several local websites, Rafayeh wrote: "In Jordan, political Islamic organizations, along with their political allies and their popular [power] bases, persist in their efforts to occupy Facebook. The campaigns focus on all critical content, and on any photograph, drawing or video, with the aim of choking freedom [of expression], drying up its arenas of activity and intimidating [those who would engage in] the activity of writing anywhere on the Internet…"[12]

Abu Risha: Threats Won't Stop Me From Revealing The Truth About Political Islam

Abu Risha also responded to the threats, writing on Facebook: "I certainly oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, the jihadi Salafism, Wahhabism, and political Islam. Whoever [attempts] to equate the members of these [streams] with Islam [itself] and claims that criticism directed at them is directed at Islam [itself] is generating great fitna [strife] and threatening our lives with the cheapest of expressions. The blood of the men and women of Jordan should not be a toy in the hands of these disturbed people who have become obsessed with proving themselves, with a lust for power and authority, and with [the desire] to pervert the rhetoric of the Quran in the most extreme manner, which is the fruit of a wild, sick imagination and blind thought… They err, those who think that a threat to our lives will prevent us from pursuing our mission to expose the secrets of these murderous gangs, which feed on disseminating hatred, ripping out [the sense] of belonging to the homeland, and planting false emotion against all that is beautiful, respectable, and humane…"[13]

"Facebook [transforms] from a platform for forming bonds to a platform for harming others." Source: Al-Ghad (Jordan), January 18, 2017

Jordanian Writers Lament Authorities' Failure To Act

Both Abu Risha and Rafayeh filed complaints with the security forces against the authors of the threatening Facebook posts, who were arrested; their posts were also removed.[14] It should be noted that the Jordanian media barely mentioned the incident. Rafayeh wrote on Facebook about his displeasure at this.[15] Only a few articles on the matter were published, some of them critical of the media silence and the authorities' inaction in light of the wave of incitement and stressing that the lesson of the assassination of Nahed Hattar had not yet been learned.

Research Institute Director: I Too Have Received Death Threats; The State Is Not Using Its Power, Allowing Others To Use It At The Expense Of Its Interests

'Oraib Al-Rantawi, the founder and director of the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies and a columnist for the Al-Dustour daily, came out in Abu Risha's and Rafayeh's defense while attacking their critics and the helplessness of the Jordanian authorities. He wrote: "I will take no part in the conspiracy of silence surrounding attacks of demonization and takfir against two dear colleagues, nor will I wait for the firing of traitorous bullets that will take the lives of [these] two Jordanian journalists: Zuleikha Abu Risha and Basel Rafayeh. That is absolutely out of the question… We must not abandon a journalist or intellectual – regardless how much we agree or disagree with him – to deal alone with the wild beasts who... allow themselves to assassinate people or their character using only one weapon, namely accusations of heresy or betrayal and [the weapon of] terrorizing people. Other journalists, myself among them, have been in the same situation as these two dear journalists. This has led to the death of another journalist, Nahed Hattar, with whom I never agreed, but I was sorry about his death because of the way it came about. Before that, my dear friend Jeryes Samawi[16] and I were both the object of persecution by the knights of darkness and takfir. What is certain is that this is not the end of the list...

"Where is the state and its various institutions as these phenomena spread? Is it sufficient to investigate a person here, or to delete a post there, to be able to say that the state has performed its duty to protect its citizens, which has been the primary duty of the state ever since it appeared as a means to organize human society? How long will the state institutions continue be vulnerable to extortion? And [how long] will strategies, initiatives and plans be converted, changed and shelved for fear of angering those of the strident voices and strong muscles? Why do they say that the state has the exclusive right to use force if it doesn’t utilize it in the right place and allows others to use it in their own ways – and always against the interests of the state and the welfare of the citizens and their security?"[17]

Independent Journalist: The Lesson Of Nahed Hattar's Death Has Not Been Learned

In an article he posted on the e-daily Nesan, independent journalist Tamer Khorma slammed the Jordanian authorities for their silence over the wave of incitement: "The blood of Nahed Hattar was not yet dry when the decision-makers had already forgotten the consequences of allowing such calls of incitement, and were even attempting to appease the inciters. Although politicians take every opportunity to boast about the wonderful state of security [in our country], Jordan has reached a sorry state… [There are] explicit calls for murder for reasons that are pathetic, to say the least. Where you want to lead this kingdom?! You fear freedom of expression, but you do not fear civil war and incitement to murder?! According to what logic is the country being governed today?!"[18]

Death Threats Against Muslim Brotherhood MP Dima Tahboub

As stated, Islamist figures also received death threats on social media. Dima Tahboub, an MP on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood, said she had received such death threats from homosexuals, due to her anti-gay activism in parliament.[19] She claimed that a complaint she had filed against them had not been properly addressed, unlike in the case of Abu Risha and Rafayeh, accused the authorities of applying a double standard in this regard, and held the Jordanian Interior Ministry and other authorities responsible for protecting her life.[20]


MP Tahboub and the post threatening her life (image:, September 25, 2017)

Preliminary Legislation To Eliminate Incitement And Hate Speech

As stated, in response to the public outrage sparked by Hattar's assassination, the Jordanian authorities pledged to combat hate speech and incitement on social media. In January 2017, government spokesman Muhammad Al-Momani said that the government was considering targeted legislation to address the spread of hate speech and incitement on social media, which he said was harming society.[21] However, in July 2017, the e-daily Rai Al-Yawm reported that Prime Minister Hani Al-Mulki had informed his ministers that he intended to postpone the legislation due to the need to attend to more pressing matters.[22] It appears that the government has indeed shelved the targeted legislation initiative and means to suffice with amending the cybercrime law. In September 2017, apparently in response to the latest incitement incidents, the Legislation and Opinion Bureau at the Prime Minister's Office drafted an amendment to this law which, for the first time, criminalizes the spreading of online hate speech and penalizes offenders.[23] The amendment defines hate speech as "any statement or action that can ignite fitna [strife]; religious zealotry; sectarian, racial or geographical bigotry, or discrimination between individuals or groups," and specifies a penalty of one-three years' imprisonment, and a fine, for anyone spreading such speech.[24]

Following the publication of the draft amendment, some expressed apprehension that it was intended to suppress freedom of expression rather than curb online hate speech. Zuleikha Abu Risha herself published an article on this in the Al-Ghad daily, saying: "This draft [amendment] is intended to silence people, not to stem the tide of violent hate speech against liberalism that is flooding social media and harming the national interest."[25]

At present, it is not yet clear whether the cybercrime law will indeed be amended and what the language of the amended law will be.


*Z. Harel is a research fellow at MEMRI.

[1], August 13, 2016.

[2] See for example articles by Al-Ghad editor Jumana Ghunaimat and by a columnist in the Al-Rai government daily, Safwat Haddadin, on September 27, 2016.

[3] Al-Ghad (Jordan), September 28, 2016.

[4] Al-Ghad (Jordan), September 28, 2016, Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), September 27, 2016.

[5] Al-Dustour (Jordan), November 27, 2017.

[6], January 5, 2017; Al-Ghad (Jordan), January 6, 2017.

[7], August 31, 2017.

[8], August 31, 2017.

[9], September 3, 2017.

[10] Jordan Times (Jordan), September 5, 2017.

[11], September 2, 2017.

[12], September 5, 2017.

[13], September 3, 2017.

[14] Al-Ghad (Jordan), September 5, 2017;, September 6, 2017.

[15], September 6, 2017.

[16] In early 2005, the Jordanian security apparatuses exposed a terror cell that had planned, among other things, to assassinate journalist 'Oraib Al-Rantawi as well as Jeryes Samawi, who at the time was the director of the Jerash Festival for Culture and Arts. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 10, 2005.

[17] Al-Dustour (Jordan), September 8, 2017.

[18], September 5, 2017.

[19] On this activism, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1342, Public Debate In Jordan On Freedoms And Values Following Ban On Rock Band With Gay Singer, September 5, 2017 Series.

[20], September 25, 2017.

[21] Al-Ghad (Jordan), January 6, 2017.

[22], June 10, 2017.

[23] It should be noted that in early 2017, after Al-Momani announced the government's intention to pass targeted legislation pertaining to social media, some questioned the need for this given the existence of the cybercrime law, and proposed to amend the latter law instead of passing a new one. See for example, January 8, 2017, Al-Ghad (Jordan), January 10, 2017.

[24], Al-Rai (Jordan), September 26, 2017.

[25] Al-Ghad (Jordan), October 16, 2017.

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