“Journalism Under Digital Siege”
The UN says: “Journalism Under Digital Siege”Journalism is seen as a profession that is always fraught with risk, due to the surveillance and repression practised by certain governments around the world, fearful of corruption or abuse of power being revealed.
This year the United Nations has chosen the theme “Journalism Under Digital Siege” as the theme for an international conference for World Press Freedom Day, 3 May. It highlights the multiple ways in which journalism is endangered by surveillance and digitally-mediated attacks on journalists, and the consequences of all this on public trust in digital communications.
A UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) discussion paper entitled “Threats that Silence: Trends in the Safety of Journalists” shows how surveillance and hacking have helped to expose information gathered by journalists, or harm the safety of journalists or their sources. The paper shows that over the past 15 years, 87% of cases of killings of journalists (706 out of a total of 1,229 killed between 2006 and December 2020) remain unresolved, ongoing or unreported, with the Arab region registering the highest level of impunity.
In December 1993 the UN General Assembly proclaimed 3 May of every year as World Press Freedom Day.
This day, 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.”
In Oman, journalism is seen as a profession that is fraught with risk of arrest, dismissal from work or loss of employment. Criticising the regime, the authorities or the head of the political hierarchy inevitably has legal consequences, usually ending in prison.
According to the reports and information from journalists and bloggers that periodically reach the Omani Centre for Human Rights (OCHR), the authorities typically call in for questioning anyone who publishes a report or opinion criticising the government’s actions or the political system in Oman.
The authorities may then only make them sign a pledge of good conduct, but sometimes they go further and take them to court.
These revenge operations carried out by the security authorities in Oman are not monitored or even considered for accountability by either the lower or upper chamber of parliament, or even by the relevant oversight committees, judging by what happened with Azamn newspaper, for example.
In March 2021 the Omani authorities again blocked the website of Muwatin Media Network, which is run from outside Oman.
Also in March 2021, they banned the Clubhouse app without bothering to explain why.
Omani law contains numerous provisions and regulations that threaten or constrain journalists and media professionals, such as:
Articles 97, 102 and 108 of the Omani Penal Code criminalises “slander against the Sultan”, criticism of foreign heads of state, and “stirring up religious or sectarian unrest or discord”. It can easily be used against journalists, especially if their work involves things like exposing cases of corruption or criticising government policies – even if the journalists only publish their work on their own social media sites. The punishments laid down in these Articles range from three to seven years in prison.
Article 115 of the Penal Code prescribes prison terms of up to three years for anyone who publishes “false or tendentious news, information or rumours or spreads provocative propaganda that is liable to harm the prestige of the State”, and is used to target bloggers, activists and writers if they write anything that exposes corruption in the government. The same provisions, found in Article 19 of the Cyber Crime Law, were used in 2016 to close down Azamn newspaper.
Meanwhile, Article 26 of the Press and Publications Law 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 with the permission of the competent authorities.
The authorities in Oman have also introduced a new law claiming to regulate the process of importing books for private organisations. It forces publishing houses to present a list of the books they have imported for publication and distribution to the relevant authorities in order to get final approval.
In its 2021 “World Press Freedom Index”, the freedom of information NGO Reporters Without Borders ranked Oman 133rd out of 180 countries. Its annual report said that in Oman: “Journalists and citizen-journalists are often arrested (and sometimes held incommunicado) and some are given long jail sentences on charges of insulting the head of state or the country’s culture and customs, or inciting illegal demonstrations and disruption of public order.”
The US research group Freedom House gave Oman a score of 24 points out of 100 (6/40 for political rights and 18/60 for civil liberties) in 2021, which put the country firmly in the category “Not free”. No further breakdown of these scores is yet available, but for the previous year Oman’s score of 23/100 included 1 out of 4 points for “free and independent media”.
In your opinion, what needs to be done to make the situation better for journalism and the media in Oman?