The extent of press freedom in Oman is closely bound up with the question of freedom of expression in the Arab Gulf states generally. There are three factors involved here, which apply to all of the Gulf States:
- the systems of government in the Gulf, which take the form of hereditary and absolute monarchies;
- despotic rule being exercised in the name of custom and tradition; and
- the monopoly on religious interpretations of what is haram (forbidden) and halal (permitted).
All of these things together create a way of thinking and a framework for living to which the authorities and people in general have become accustomed in these countries. Stepping outside them is seen as breaking with this familiar system and framework. The prevailing culture could therefore be described in general terms as one of a herd mentality, in which Gulf societies are brought up to be fearful and anxious about deviating from the will of the herd, and to reject and attack anyone who tries to step outside this prevailing culture. So, anyone who deviates from government policy is seen as a traitor, an enemy agent, someone who fails to recognise the government’s bounty towards him; anyone who deviates from the dominant religious view is seen as an atheist and heretic and may also be declared an infidel; and anyone who deviates from traditional social norms is seen as queer, loses his status as a man, and may be disowned by his tribe.
In this briefing, however, we will focus only on the political aspect, and its primary and direct responsibility for the present state of press freedom in Oman. There are two main factors that determine the general state of press freedom in Oman:
By Mohammed Alfazari
1 – The government’s media philosophy
The government in Oman sees the media as a promotional tool. Let me offer by way of illustration the argument used again and again by the security agencies when interrogating any prisoner of conscience: “Why don’t you look at the full half of the glass?” The Omani government understands the press’s role as being merely to present a positive picture, by showing ways in which the country is developing and thanking the government for this. The media, moreover, sometimes twist and distort the facts by giving certain news items undue prominence and portraying them as huge achievements that should be marked and celebrated.
Even more damagingly, the government doesn’t accept journalists or news organisations asking why the empty half of the glass is empty, even if they do look at the full half of the glass as the government wants them to do. All kinds of criticism in whatever journalistic form – investigative features, opinion pieces or even straightforward news items and reports – are deemed unacceptable by the government even if they are not breaching any laws. So as a rule, newspapers in Oman just publish the news they receive from the public relations departments of government and private sector bodies. This kind of journalism has come to be known as the PR press or e-mail journalism.
2 – Legislation and regulations
A free press is one of the basic pillars of free speech. The right to freedom of expression is assured in Oman’s Basic Statute (Constitution), Chapter Three, Article 29, which states that freedom of opinion and the freedom to express that opinion orally and in writing and by other means is guaranteed, within the limits of the law.
But what are “the limits of the law”?
A: The Omani Penal Code
Certain provisions of the Omani Penal Code have been widely criticised by lawyers and political and human rights activists. Their main criticisms are:
1 that parts of the Code are inconsistent with the principles of free speech and a free press and the rights of citizenship; and
2 that most of the Articles relating to freedoms are loosely worded and open to abuse.
On January 11, 2018 Sultan Qaboos issued a decree annulling the old Penal Code and replacing it with a new version. In the view of observers, though, the new Penal Code simply strengthens and further entrenches the worst aspects of the old one. They see it as sharply reducing the current extent of various freedoms by introducing vaguely defined offences and harsh penalties of up to life imprisonment and in some cases the death penalty.
The new Code contains some vaguely defined provisions that could easily be used by the Internal Security Service, notorious for its history of human rights abuses, to target:
political and religious scholars;
human rights defenders;
internet activists; and
Here are some excerpts from the new Omani Penal Code:
- Article 97: The punishment for anyone who either openly or by means of publication commits slander against the Sultan and his authority, or denigrates him personally, shall be imprisonment for a term of not less than three years and not more than seven years.
- Article 118: The punishment for anyone who obtains or holds written or printed materials favourable to or promoting anything specified in Article 116 of this Law, if they are intended for distribution or for others to read, and likewise anyone who obtains or holds any means of printing, recording or publication made available, even temporarily… shall be imprisonment for a term of not less than six months and not more than three years.
- Article 123: The punishment for anyone who calls for or provokes a public gathering shall be imprisonment for a term of not less than three months and not more than six months.
- Article 267: The punishment for anyone who makes, distributes, publishes or displays, even if not in public, a book, publication, drawings, photographs, films or images etc. of an indecent nature or harmful to public morality shall be imprisonment for a term of not less than ten days and not more than one year and/or a fine of not less than OR100 ($260) and not more than OR300 ($780).
- Article 269: The punishment shall be imprisonment for a term of not less than three years and not more than ten years for anyone who commits one of the following acts:
(a) blaspheming against or insulting the Divinity verbally or by means of writing, drawing or gestures or by any other means;
(b) insulting, perverting or desecrating the Holy Quran;
(c) insulting the Islamic religion or any of its rites, or reviling any of the divine religions;
(d) blaspheming against or insulting any of the prophets verbally or by means of writing, drawing or gestures or by any other means…
B: The Press and Publications Law, issued by Royal Decree in 1984
- Article 25: It is prohibited to publish anything that explicitly or implicitly defames His Majesty the Sultan or members of the royal family in words or images. It is also prohibited to incite people against the system of government in the Sultanate or insult it or disrupt public order or call people to embrace or promote anything that contravenes the principles of the Islamic religion.
- Article 26: 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…
- Article 27: It is prohibited to publish anything that might prejudice the national currency or lead to confusion about the money market in the Sultanate or the economic position of the country.
- Article 28: It is prohibited to publish anything that might prejudice public morality and ethics or divine religions.
Case studies of news organisations that challenged this situation:
1 Azamn newspaper
- In July 2016, Azamn published a two-part report about corruption on the part of the chair of the Judicial Council and head of the Supreme Court.
- However, the paper’s editor-in-chief, managing editor and top journalist were sentenced to prison for various periods, the harshest being for three years initially, reduced to one year on appeal.
- Also, on August 9, 2016 the Minister of Information issued an order closing down the newspaper and suspending its distribution.
- And on October 5, 2017 the Supreme Court issued a decree closing Azamn down for good.
2 Al Balad online newspaper
- On October 30, 2016 Al Balad announced in a statement on its website that it was suspending publication. The main reason for this was not spelled out, though its statement hinted at “pressures” being exerted on the paper.
- The Omani Centre for Human Rights (OCHR) learned that Al Balad’s editor-in-chief had been summoned by the Mukhabirat (Internal Security Service) and held for questioning for three days, and it was after his release that the statement was published announcing Al Balad’s suspension.
- According to OCHR’s source, the main, though not only, reason for the editor-in-chief being called in for questioning was that Al Balad had published a translated report from Reuters indicating that Oman was one of the countries from which weapons were being smuggled into Yemen.
3 Mowatin magazine
- On May 3, 2017, coinciding with World Press Freedom Day, the Omani authorities blocked the website of the online magazine Mowatin, just as Mowatin was announcing that it was resuming publication.
- Previously, on January 14, 2016, Mowatin had announced that it was suspending operations after repeated harassment by the security forces of a number of its staff, including being detained and threatened.
- Its founder and editor-in-chief had also previously suffered harassment by the security forces in Oman, culminating in having his passport and personal documents withdrawn after being banned from travelling abroad. Before that he had been threatened and detained a number of times.
- On July 17, 2015 the editor-in-chief decided to leave Oman for the UK to seek political asylum.
- The magazine’s website remains blocked in Oman and some other Gulf states, and anyone associated with it continues to be harassed.
Working in journalism in Oman and the Gulf generally is safe and not particularly fraught with danger, as long as a journalist or news organisation doesn’t stray outside the parameters set by the government through its security forces. This goes for all news organisations, private and government-sponsored alike, and all journalistic formats, whether video, audio or text. Those parameters are as follows:
- Don’t criticise the Sultan or his family or the security services, directly or indirectly.
- Don’t criticise his management of any of the State institutions he heads, however poorly managed they may be. In Oman, Sultan Qaboos holds all the power and manages all of the higher State institutions, so it is best not to criticise at all.
- Forget all you ever learned about journalism, and investigative journalism in particular, and be sure to glorify everything the Sultan and his government do.