3rd May – World Press Freedom Day: Overcoming Restrictions and Upholding Human Rights Standards in Oman
On May 3rd, we celebrate World Press Day, a time to recognize the crucial role of the media in our society and the difficulties faced by journalists as they seek to uncover the truth. Media freedom is a fundamental human right and an essential indicator of a country’s commitment to democratic values and human rights. However, Oman’s recent actions have raised significant concerns regarding the country’s disregard for journalists’ rights, including censorship and restrictions on press freedom.
The Omani government’s track record on media freedom and freedom of expression, as evidenced by the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, is deeply troubling. According to the @RSF_inter Index 2023, Oman ranks 155 out of 180 countries, representing an improvement of 8 places from the previous year’s ranking 163 in 2022.
Furthermore, Freedom House has rated Oman as “Not Free,” with an overall score of 24 out of 100, with a mere 6 out of 40 in political rights, and 18 out of 40 in civil rights. In terms of media freedom and independence, Oman was awarded just one point out of a total of 4 points by Freedom House, owing to the government’s censorship of media outlets and channels, as well as its imposition of restrictions on freedom of expression.
Despite being enacted 39 years ago, the Press and Publications Law, which governs the press and media in Oman, remains in force to this day. Numerous journalists, media professionals, and writers in Oman have expressed criticism of the law and its provisions. However, the government has yet to announce any intention to amend or update it. As a result, the media and press in Oman continue to operate within the confines of this outdated law, which may limit their ability to report and share information freely.
In December 2020, the Minister of Information in Oman directed the order of an amendment to the Press and Publication Law. This amendment extends the same laws governing traditional media to electronic media as well. The Omani Center for Human Rights has expressed concerns that this move could impede the growth and development of the media and journalistic scene in Oman.
Furthermore, Oman’s failure to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights raises questions about the country’s commitment to upholding international human rights standards, including those related to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as civil and political rights. As one of the key pillars of these rights, the press and media must be able to operate freely and without undue government interference in order to foster an open and democratic society.
The Omani Penal Code includes several provisions that place limitations on the freedom of the press and the free flow of information. One such Article is Article 115, which imposes a prison sentence of up to three years 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”.
Unfortunately, this Article has been used to silence independent newspapers such as Time, which was forced to close in 2016 after publishing reports of administrative corruption in the Ministry of Justice. More recently, the Article has been used to target individuals who voice dissenting views against government policies on social media. These restrictions limit the ability of journalists and media professionals to report on issues of public interest and infringe on the fundamental human right of freedom of expression.
Another Article in the Omani Penal Code that poses a threat to media freedom is Article 249, which prohibits the publication of news related to ongoing investigations or related documents without permission from the Public Prosecution Office or the competent court. This Article carries penalties of up to two years in prison and fines. Unfortunately, this ruling has been used to target journalists who report on corruption or other sensitive issues.
In March 2022, journalist Mukhtar al-Hanai was charged under Article 249 after he tweeted about a case of financial and administrative corruption in one of the government ministries. Despite being acquitted by the court in July 2022, he remains suspended from work due to the pressure exerted on him. This case demonstrates the risks and challenges faced by journalists and media professionals in Oman who seek to report on matters of public interest and hold those in power accountable.
Furthermore, in March 2023, Fatima Al-Araimi announced the discontinuation of her news platform, Waf Agency, without providing any reasons. It’s worth noting that the Omani Ministry of Information had revoked her license to represent Reuters Agency back in January 2017. Al-Araimi’s entrepreneurial spirit in launching the first licensed private news agency in Oman has been a remarkable feat, and her impact on the country’s media landscape will be remembered.
In addition to the previous cases, there have been recent developments that raise concerns about media freedom in Oman. Hala FM, a popular radio channel in Oman, and a local woman named Umm Ruqayah were both subjected to investigation after Umm Ruqayah appeared on one of the channel’s episodes, showing pictures of vandalism and neglect in a public school in Al Amarat province in Muscat Governorate. The case is still ongoing.
It’s worth noting that Kouloud Al-Alalawi, a journalist and presenter at Hala FM, had previously been suspended by the Omani Ministry of Information in December 2021, along with her program “All Questions.” However, the ministry later retracted its decision, as stated by the Omani Journalists Association on December 29, 2021. These incidents highlight the precarious situation for journalists and media professionals in Oman, and the ongoing challenges they face in their work.
The Cyber Crime law in Oman is another obstacle to press freedom as it criminalizes various activities related to the use of technology and the internet that may offend religious values or public order. This law has been used to silence social media activists and people who advocate for religious or political freedom.
Another challenge to freedom of the press is the limitations on freedom of expression. Article 97 of the Penal Code imposes harsh penalties, including imprisonment for up to 7 years, on anyone who criticizes the Sultan, his family, or his prerogatives. This Article has been used to stifle dissent and punish those who dare to express their opinions.
the Omani Centre for Human Rights is deeply concerned about the restrictive approach to press freedom and media censorship in Oman. The outdated Press and Publication Law, which has not kept pace with technological developments and social media, imposes heavy censorship on journalists and media platforms, which ultimately stifles the growth of a vibrant media scene in the country.
The restrictions imposed on freedom of expression, whether in the Omani Penal Code or the Cybercrime Law, and the criminalization of criticism of the Sultan and his family, indicate an intolerance for opinions opposing the prevailing laws or the official approach, and ignore the principles of freedom of the press and expression.
The OCHR urges the Omani government to take immediate steps to reform its laws and practices related to media freedom and freedom of expression, in line with international human rights standards. This would help promote transparency, accountability, and a vibrant media scene that serves the people, and ensure that journalists and media professionals can carry out their work without fear of censorship, harassment, or imprisonment. We believe that the promotion of press freedom and media independence is essential for a healthy and democratic society, and we call on the Omani government to take decisive action in this regard.