Omani Media Continue to Work Under Some of The World’s Harshest Restrictions
The media play an important role in society: reporting on events, uncovering facts, providing the information people need to make sense of the world, communicating ideas, and holding individuals and governments to account by drawing attention to various issues. The extent of media freedom in any country is therefore a measure of its development and respect for human rights.
Rights violations against journalists around the world are also a measure of the free flow of information, and according to the non-profit organisation Reporters sans Frontières (RSF; in English “Reporters Without Borders”) 52 journalists and media workers have been killed since 1 January 2022, and 280 imprisoned.
RSF ranks Oman 163rd out of 180 countries – down 30 places from 133rd in 2021 – in its 2022 press freedom index, which is based on political, economic, legislative, social and security indicators. This is hardly surprising, given the laws and regulations in force in the sultanate, and the arrests that have taken place.
Omani law contains vague terms and loosely worded provisions that can be taken to mean almost anything, making it easy for the government to prosecute anyone who steps out of line or fails to promote the desired message.
Article 97 of the Omani Penal Code, for example, specifies a prison term of up to seven years as punishment for anyone committing the crime of criticising the Sultan or his family or challenging his authority. This Article was used against Dr Ahmad Qutn after he posted calls on Twitter for the Shura (Consultative) Council to be given greater powers.
Article 102 lays down a penalty of up to three years’ imprisonment for anyone who “publicly commits a challenge to the rights of the head of a foreign state during his presence in the territory of the State”.
Article 115 stipulates a prison term of between three months and three years (or between three years and 10 years during a state of emergency, wartime or disaster) for anyone who “wilfully incites, broadcasts or publishes, internally or abroad, false or malicious news, statements or rumours or spreads propaganda that undermines the prestige of the State or weakens confidence in its financial markets or its economic and financial standing”. This Article was used to close down the independent newspaper Azamn in 2016 after it reported on administrative corruption in the Justice Ministry, and in 2022 against Dr Ahmad Qutn because of his activity on Twitter.
Article 19 of the Cyber Crime Law sets a penalty of imprisonment for up to three years and/or a fine of between 1,000 and 3,000 riyals for anyone who uses the internet or information technology to “produce, publish, distribute, purchase or possess anything that might prejudice public order or religious values”. This Article has been used against social media activists and people concerned about politics or religious freedom. It was used recently against businessman Hani al-Sarhani after he posted a video on his YouTube channel about a peaceful sit-in he and some companions staged, and against Dr Ahmad Qutn for his activity on Twitter.
Article 249 of the Penal Code sets a punishment of up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 1,000 riyals for anyone who publishes, without permission from the Public Prosecution or competent court, news concerning an ongoing investigation or a related document. This provision was invoked against journalist Mukhtar al-Hanai after he tweeted on 9 March 2022 about the outcome of a case of financial and administrative corruption in an Omani government ministry.
Article 26 of the Press and Publications Law prohibits the publication of “anything prejudicial to the safety of the State or its internal or external security, or anything concerning the military and security agencies or their statutes and internal regulations, or any confidential documents, information, news or official communications, whether through audiovisual and textual media or by means of the internet or information technology, without permission from the relevant authorities”.
The world judges countries’ progress according to a number of measures, one of the main ones being the amount of freedom enjoyed by their citizens – and the most important of the liberties that are supposedly accepted without question is freedom of expression. And so harsh restrictions on freedom of expression, and overt censorship of the media, journalists and activists, show just how far a government is prepared to go to marginalise people by silencing their voices. The government should carefully consider the reasons for and consequences of following such a tyrannical course.
The Omani Centre for Human Rights calls for media freedom to be respected in Oman, for an end to the harassment of activists, and for the release of all prisoners of conscience.