An update on press freedom in Oman, one year after the final closure of Azamn

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On October 5, 2017, Oman’s highest judicial authority, the Supreme Court, issued its final ruling in the case of the newspaper Azamn.  The paper had published a report on July 26, 2016 about corruption in the Omani judiciary, to which the head of the Supreme Court, along with a number of senior government officials, was party.

Azamn’s chairman and editor-in-chief, Ibrahim al-Maamari, was arrested two days later, on July 28, 2016.

On August 7 and 9, 2016, Azamn followed up its report by publishing an interview with the deputy head of the Supreme Court, who confirmed the existence of corruption and the truth of what Azamn had said in its report.

On August 9, 2016, Oman’s Information Minister, Abdul Munim al-Hasani, issued an order closing Azamn down.

Also on August 9, 2016, the Internal Security apparatus kidnapped Azamn’s managing editor Youssef al-Hajj, who had conducted the interviews with the deputy head of the Supreme Court, from a barber’s shop.

After protracted deliberations in the Court of First Instance, and then the Court of Appeal, the latter ruled that al-Hajj should be jailed for a year and al-Maamari for six months, but that Azamn could resume operations two weeks after the date of sentencing, which was December 26, 2016.

The information ministry appealed against the verdict that Azamn should return to work, until eventually the Supreme Court issued its ruling on October 5, 2017.

The Azamn case, however, is not the only indicator of the dire state of the press in Oman, and the level to which press freedom has sunk.

After its editor-in-chief was detained for questioning for several days, the online newspaper Al Balad announced that it was finally pulling out of media work and closing down, on October 30, 2016.

The e-journal Mowatin has been banned in Oman since May 2017, without the government giving any reasons for the ban.

In 2018, Reporters Without Borders ranked Oman 127th out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index, and coloured it red (for “bad”) on its press freedom map.

Journalists are liable to arrest and imprisonment if they contact international media organisations to publish news that the government considers harmful to the prestige of the state or to public security.

Journalists in Oman are obliged to disclose their sources if the government asks them to do so.

The directors of the Paris International Book Fair and the French Publishers Association signed an agreement with the Omani information ministry for it to be a guest of honour at the upcoming Book Fair, despite both these organisations being aware of the information ministry’s order to close down Azamn.

Article 26 of the Omani Press and Publications Law, which many activists, writers, journalists and bloggers see as clearly violating the rights to freedom of opinion, expression and publication, states:

“It is forbidden to publish anything prejudicial to the safety of the state or its internal or external security, or anything concerning the military and security agencies or their systems or internal regulations, or any confidential documents, information, news or official communications, whether through audiovisual and textual media or by means of data networks or information technology, without permission from the relevant authorities.”

Article 115 (a) of the recently updated Omani Penal Code can be seen as a threat to any attempt to carry out journalistic work that strays beyond the limits imposed on the rest of the press by the government and security requirements.  It prescribes a punishment of not less than three months and not more than three years for anyone who:

“deliberately instigates, broadcasts or publishes at home or abroad false or tendentious news, information or rumours or spreads provocative propaganda that is liable to harm the prestige of the State or undermine confidence in its financial markets or its economic and financial standing”.

There is no journalism in Oman, only government publications for our entertainment!