On World Press Freedom Day 2021, how free is the Omani press?

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In December 1993 the UN General Assembly proclaimed World Press Freedom Day, to be celebrated worldwide on 3 May each year.  According to the United Nations,

“Each year 3 May acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom. It is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics. It is an opportunity to:

  • celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom;
  • assess the state of press freedom throughout the world;
  • defend the media from attacks on their independence;
  • and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.”[1]

Oman does not enjoy the benefits of a free press. In fact the restrictions on journalists and publishers are getting worse, with new measures being introduced to clamp down further on the freedom to publish.

In its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Oman 133rd out of 180 countries.

The US-based monitoring organisation Freedom House has consistently given Oman one mark out of four for “free and independent media”, out of a total of 17 marks currently out of 60 for civil liberties in general, along with 6 out of 40 for political rights, giving it a total of 23/100 marks (down from 25/100 a few years ago) and an overall freedom rating of “Not Free”.

In March 2021 the Omani authorities once again blocked the website of Muwatin News Network, a media organisation now being run from outside Oman.

In the same month, the authorities also banned the Clubhouse social media app without bothering to provide an explanation for this move.

And the authorities have also recently issued a new law claiming to regulate the process of importing books from private organisations. It forces publishing houses to present a list of the books they import for publication and distribution to the relevant departments in order to get final approval.

The Omani press, meanwhile, continues to face threats from the security services that can lead to journalists being arbitrarily arrested and banned from working.

Reprisals carried out by the security authorities in Oman are neither monitored nor reviewed or challenged, by either the Majlis Oman (the country’s pseudo-parliament) or even the bodies tasked with overseeing the work of the security forces. The case of Azamn newspaper – which was closed down, and whose managing editor and editor-in-chief were jailed in 2016 after exposing high-level corruption in the Omani judiciary – is a good example of this.

Omani law itself contains numerous provisions representing threats to or restrictions on journalists and journalistic activity.

Articles 97, 102 and 108 of the Penal Code, which outlaw slander or denigration of the Sultan, criticism of foreign heads of state, and “seeking to stir up unrest or discord or disunity among the population”, can easily be used against journalists and journalism, especially if their work involves revealing cases of corruption or criticising government policies. This applies even if journalists only publish their work on their own private platforms. The articles in question specify penalties of up to seven or even 10 years in prison.

Article 115 of the Code, which penalises anyone who “publishes false or tendentious news or rumours or spreads provocative propaganda”, is used to target bloggers, activists and writers if they write anything that brings to light any corruption in the government. The same wording (in Article 19 of the Cybercrimes Law) was used in 2016 to close down Azamn.

Meanwhile, Clause 26 of the Press and Publications Law states:

It is prohibited to publish anything that might compromise the State’s safety or its internal or external security, as well as anything related to military or security bodies, their systems and internal regulations, or any confidential documents, information, news or 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.”

Such sweeping yet imprecise prohibitions make it impossible to do the vital work of publishing and journalism freely, without fear of arrest and punishment.

How do you think press freedom can be strengthened in Oman?


[1] https://www.un.org/en/observances/press-freedom-day