(MENAFN - Jordan Times) When security services referred 12 protesters to the State Security Court for slandering the King and threatening national security on Sunday, the move was much more than a standard judicial procedure.
The detention of activists marked yet another chapter in the ongoing struggles of protesters and authorities to determine the fine line between political expression and provocative speech in post-Arab Spring Jordan.
When dozens of pro-reformists gathered in front of the Prime Ministry on Saturday to protest the ongoing detention of five Tafileh political activists for allegedly slandering the King, two simple words transformed the gathering from a peaceful sit-in to a "security threat".
"As soon as we mouthed the words 'topple the regime,' things went aflame," said Anas Shabahat, one of 28 participants who were detained by security services and later released.
Although participants claim the slogan in its entirety did not call for the toppling of the "regime", and "fell within the boundaries of free speech", officials say the controversial, "reckless" chant was a clear attempt to incite instability.
"There are certain elements who are attempting to incite violence in the name of reform and as our role of protecting the public, we have to intervene," Public Security Department (PSD) Spokesman Lt. Col. Mohammed Khatib said.
Saturday's arrests marked the latest in a series of arrests for "unlawful" political activity in the last few months. Human rights activists say the arrests come against the backdrop of a free speech "renaissance" in Jordan - which has witnessed over 1,000 peaceful protests since the beginning of the Arab Spring.
"We saw great progress in the freedom of expression in Jordan in 2011. In many ways Jordan has been the most tolerant Arab state in terms of allowing people to express their opinions," said a source at the National Centre of Human Rights (NCHR).
Amman has taken a series of steps, including ignoring and then annulling an item in the Public Gatherings Law requiring protesters to obtain prior approval from the interior ministry - that the state-run human rights centre says has "opened the door" for widespread political expression.
With the newfound freedoms, protesters have pushed the boundaries even further, activists and officials admit, criticising officials ranging from the head of the General Intelligence Department to Royal Court advisers - often times straddling the fine line between political expression and "defamation".
"With the new ceiling of freedoms, citizens are asking for more and more, but they don't realise that these new freedoms come with responsibility," the NCHR official added.
Activists claim that despite stepping up their slogans over the past several months, they have been careful to avoid the traditional "red lines" - the King, national unity and national security - and until Saturday had restricted their calls for "regime reform", not "regime change".
"From the beginning of our protest movement, we took the decision to raise our just demands peacefully and in a dignified manner," Saeed Ouran, one of the five Tafileh activists facing charges of slandering the King, recently told The Jordan Times from his jail cell in southern Amman.
"We all agreed that insults and language inciting national, regional or religious divisions would be forbidden - the success of our movement has depended on this."
Legal experts say the struggle to define free speech in 2012 dates back to vague legal wording from the 1960s.
The 1960 Penal Code includes several articles setting multi-year prison terms for statements deemed insulting to the dignity of the state or the King or threatening to national unity.
No Penal Code section has become more notorious than Article 195, which calls for a three-year prison term for any act or statement that slanders the dignity of the King - a charge that has been filed in a series of recent cases including a teenager convicted of burning a photo of the King and the protest slogans of five Tafileh activists.
Human rights activists argue that the articles cast a wide net and are open for abuse, allowing authorities to arrest citizens for acts and statements deemed critical of Arab heads of state and even government buildings.
"How much damage can one person do by insulting the bricks of Parliament?" remarked Christoph Wilcke, researcher at UK-based Human Rights Watch.
According to Human Rights Watch, some 50 Jordanian citizens are jailed each year for violating items in the Penal Code related to freedom of expression (the NCHR disputes this figure), attributing the recent international media focus the country's lse-majest laws to the public profile of recent detainees.
"Before, people were being detained but their cases didn't receive any attention. Now when a political activist is sent to the State Security Court, the whole world knows it," Wilcke said.
Another point of contention in the ongoing debate over free speech is the role of the State Security Court, which currently is the destination for individuals suspected of defaming the Monarch or making statements deemed a threat to national security.
Mousa Abdullat, representative of the teenage activist jailed for burning the Monarch's photo, is one of dozens of lawyers who challenge the court's right to try cases of political nature, stressing that the military tribunal's jurisdiction is restricted to cases that threaten national security.
"All authorities have to do is claim someone made a statement that threatened national security and they can hold them indefinitely," Abdullat told The Jordan Times.
"We can't have free speech in Jordan as long as there is a State Security Court."
Experts claim the solution to reaching a balance between free speech and public order lies in the law.
Legal experts highlight one sentence in last year's constitutional amendments which enshrines citizens' rights to free speech by requiring all laws and constitutional amendments in the country to be in line with basic concepts of "human rights".
"This addition secures basic human rights for all Jordanians - and this includes the freedom of expression," said Taher Hikmat, former justice minister and member of the constitutional panel that drafted the amendment.
Hikmat said the amendment will force authorities and legislators to amend several items in the Penal Code to be in line with the revised Constitution, including Article 195 - to clearly set out the limits for citizens and authorities to follow.
"People need to know once and for all the clear difference between speech and defamation," Hikmat added.
As citizens continue to hit the streets to demand political reform, legal experts say Jordan will have to follow the lead of several countries by reaching a consensus over off-limits speech based on cultural, historic and religious norms.
Until that day comes, political activists, security services and legal experts will continue to be on guard each time protesters gear up their next rally cry.
"A simple word can transform a political activist into a threat to national security," Ouran said.
"Until we have clear laws and a transparent system, each time we go to the street, we expect to remain labelled as such."