A free press = a free society




In the Arab world, the press operates under tight restrictions. It works in challenging conditions that mean it cannot play its proper role, and usually ends up being totally biased towards the government.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.[1]

Oman, like some other states, has not yet signed up to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and it imposes heavy censorship on journalists and their work.

The Press and Publications Law issued in 1984 is still – 38 years on – the law in force controlling journalism and the media in Oman. Amendments have been introduced at intervals, but many people working in the media and journalism still find the law frustrating. It isn’t fit for purpose and it hasn’t kept pace with technology in this age of social media, which has revolutionised the very concept of journalism and media. For a long time these were confined to traditional modes of news dissemination, but nowadays they keep up with events moment by moment, breaking decades-old boundaries of time and place.

One amendment to the Press and Publications Law, made by order of the Minister of Information in December 2020, brought electronic media under the same laws as conventional media, namely the 1984 Press and Publications Law and the 2004 Law on Private Radio and Television Establishments. This places an effective block on huge developments in journalism and the media that can no longer in any way be governed by conventional media regulations, which are in practice obsolete or at best can only be applied to print media and local broadcast channels that don’t go beyond national borders.

Anyone now wanting to set up or launch a media website or online news platform has to obtain a licence similar to the licence required for a print newspaper or magazine. This shows extraordinary ignorance of life in the real world, both locally and globally. There have been radical changes in this area – for example, whereas the Press and Publications Law requires proprietors to have half a million riyals to set up a daily newspaper, or quarter of a million riyals to set up a magazine, today anyone can create their own website or text and video platform within minutes, without needing to pay anything.

Publication bans and the restrictions placed on subject matter represent the greatest challenges today to progress in the media and journalism, and to enabling them to be free, independent, transparent and impartial.

Articles 25, 26, 27 and 28 of the Press and Publications Law prohibit the publication of anything containing criticism of the Sultan and his family, or anything that might compromise the safety of the state or its internal or external security, or any documents that could be interpreted as revealing military/security secrets, or anything that harms the national currency.[2] These prohibitions are elastic and unclear, and have come under heavy criticism from international human rights organisations as restrictions to which the Omani authorities resort for use against activists, dissidents, and analysts and followers of local politics and human rights affairs.

In 2016 an Omani court ordered the closure of Azamn newspaper and online newspaper Al Balad – journalists were arrested, summoned for questioning and imprisoned, and had their licences to practise journalism revoked – and in 2017 an Omani journalist lost her accreditation as a Reuters correspondent. Observers say Omani correspondents for the international press, media and satellite TV channels are usually members of the security forces, or else they work within such tight constraints that they end up resigning or being banned. This is because international news agencies, TV channels and newspapers cannot appoint any correspondent or reporter until they have been approved by the Omani Information Ministry.

It should also be pointed out that in 2020 the authorities in Oman blocked the website of Muwatin Media Network for the second time. Before that, since the mid-1990s, a number of online forums, like “Sablat Oman” and “Al-Hara al-Omaniya”, and activists’ blogs had already suffered the same fate. Their founders were prosecuted, but some of them were allowed to continue once they had been brought totally under the management of security officials.

Article 31 of the Basic Law of the State (Oman’s constitution) stipulates that:

The freedom of the press, printing and publishing is guaranteed according to the terms and conditions prescribed by the Law. Anything that leads to discord, affects the security of the State, or prejudices human dignity or rights, is prohibited.[3]

But how is “leading to discord” or “affecting the security of the State” to be interpreted?

As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said earlier this year: “Free and independent journalism is our greatest ally in combating misinformation and disinformation.”[4]





[1] UN General Assembly Resolution 217 A, adopted 10 December 1948

[2] Oman Press and Publications Law https://www.injaaz.om/index/Language/English/Doc/Laws/Printing%20and%20Publication%20Law.pdf

[3] Oman Basic Law of the State https://www.wipo.int/edocs/lexdocs/laws/en/om/om019en.pdf

[4] UN Secretary-General’s message for world press freedom day 2021 https://www.un.org/en/observances/press-freedom-day/messages

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