Press freedom in Oman: As bad as the rest of the Arab world, but no one notices
In Oman there is one official newspaper published in Arabic, the daily Oman, and a number of privately owned newspapers and publications such as Al-Shabiba, Al Watan, Azamn (closed down by court order) and Alroya, as well as online news sites like Al Balad (closed down because of pressure from the security services) and Mowatin magazine (website blocked).
The current Sultan of Oman has decreed into law several oppressive statutes that curtail liberties, restrict freedom to do journalistic work, and threaten to destroy the future prospects of any journalist, even if working independently.
Article 20 of Royal Decree 38/2014 gave the Interior Ministry absolute power to withdraw the citizenship of anyone found guilty of working for a party or state acting against the interests of Oman. However the Article is loosely worded and, according to the analysis of the Omani Centre for Human Rights, is used against any piece of journalism containing criticism of government policies or uncovering corruption.
Articles 97, 102 and 108 of the revised Omani Penal Code can easily be used against journalists and journalism, especially if the journalistic work in question uncovers cases of corruption or criticises government policies etc., even if journalists publish their work on their own private platforms. The penalty for infringing some or all of these Articles is up to ten years in jail.
The three paragraphs of Article 115 of the Penal Code are used to target bloggers, activists and writers if they write anything that might expose some government corruption. The same provisions (also found in Article 19 of the Cybercrime Law) were used in 2016 to close down Azamn newspaper, and to harass Al Balad online newspaper until the editorial team decided to close it down for fear of possible punitive measures against its members. The security authorities likewise used these provisions in 2017 to cancel a journalist’s accreditation because of a report published by Reuters news agency, and they were also used to block the website of Mowatin online magazine.
Other Articles of the Omani Penal Code, while not targeting journalism in a formal sense, may nevertheless be applied to any piece of journalistic writing that fails to fall in line with establishment thinking.
Many activists, writers and bloggers continue to labour under a wide range of oppressive measures for expressing their opinions on their personal social media pages. Several activists were called in for questioning and detained for long periods for criticising the visit to Oman of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in October 2018.
Some activists and Twitter users who have actively engaged with issues like unemployment in Oman have been summoned and interrogated. Some of them have been arrested; others were threatened and asked by the security authorities to immediately drop their support for the cause.
Article 26 of the Press and Publications Law is seen by many activists, writers, journalists and bloggers as a gross violation of the rights to freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom to publish. It states:
It is forbidden to publish anything that might compromise the safety of the State or its internal or external security, or anything related to the military and security agencies or their systems or internal regulations, or any documents, information, news or confidential official communications, whether through visual, audio or written media or through the Internet or by means of information technology, unless authorised by the competent authorities.
Freedom House, a US-based monitoring organisation, has for years classified the press in Oman as “not free”;
The latest World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders Oman slipped five places from 127th to 132nd position out of 180 countries.
So how is it possible for us to contribute to the development of journalism and expand its freedom?