On World Press Freedom Day:

Restrictions on journalistic work and journalists in Oman.

The world celebrates World Press Freedom Day on the third of May every year, marking an occasion to reflect on the crucial role of media in society and the challenges journalists face in pursuing the truth. In many countries, press freedom serves as a key indicator of a state’s development and its respect for human rights. Oman has faced increasing criticism for its violations of journalists’ rights and the surveillance and restrictions imposed on media freedom.

In the realm of media freedom and freedom of expression, Oman’s record, as highlighted by the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, is cause for concern. Oman ranks 137th out of 180 countries in the 2024 RSF Index, advancing 18 places from the previous year. Despite this progress, the organisation observes that self-censorship remains prevalent and robust. The report also points to ongoing targeting of independent press.

Freedom House classified Oman as “not free” with a total score of 24 out of 100 points, comprising 6 out of 40 in political rights and 18 out of 40 in civil liberties. The organisation noted in its report that Oman received a very low score in civil liberties due to restrictions imposed on freedom of expression, association formation, and peaceful assembly.

The Press and Publications Law, enacted in 1984, remains the prevailing law regulating the press and media in Oman, despite being in effect for 40 years. Despite criticism from many journalists, media professionals, and writers within Oman regarding the decree and its laws, there has been no announcement of intentions to amend or update it thus far.

In December 2020, the Minister of Information directed the adoption of an amendment to the Press and Publications Law, which subjects electronic/online media to the same regulations as traditional media. The OCHRD considers this move as a hindrance to the development of the media and journalism landscape in Oman.

Furthermore, Oman’s failure to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights has sparked controversy regarding its commitment to upholding international standards of human rights, including freedom of opinion and expression, as well as civil and political rights, of which journalism and media are integral components.

The Omani Penal Code contains several provisions that restrict press freedom and the flow of information. For instance, Article 115 stipulates imprisonment for up to 3 years for anyone who intentionally instigates, broadcasts, or publishes false or malicious news, statements, or rumors, or disseminates provocative advertisements, with the aim of undermining the state’s authority or weakening confidence in its financial or economic status. This provision has been used to shut down independent newspapers, such as Al-Zaman in 2016, after it published reports on administrative corruption in the Ministry of Justice, and recently to target individuals speaking out against government policies on social media platforms.

Furthermore, Article 249 of the same law prohibits the publication of news related to an ongoing investigation or relevant document without permission from the public prosecutor’s office or the competent court, with penalties of up to two years in prison and fines. This provision has been used to target journalists writing about corruption or other sensitive issues.

In March 2022, journalist Mukhtar Al-Hinai was charged under Article 249 after tweeting about a case of financial and administrative corruption in a government ministry. Despite the case concluding in July 2022 with the court’s acquittal, he remains suspended from work due to the pressures exerted on him.

Additionally, journalist Fatma Al-Arimi announced in March 2023 the suspension of her news platform “WAF” without specifying reasons. It’s worth noting that the Omani Ministry of Information had revoked Reuters’ representation license for Al-Arimi in January 2017.

Furthermore, radio station Hala FM and Omani citizen “Um Ruqaiya” were investigated after Um Ruqaiya appeared in a radio episode showcasing vandalism and neglect in a government school in Al-Amrat, Muscat Governorate. The case remains ongoing.

Moreover, journalist and presenter of the Hala FM channel, Khulood Al-Awli, was suspended by the Omani Ministry of Information in December 2021 along with her program “All Questions” before the ministry reversed its decision, as stated by the Omani Journalists Association on December 29, 2021.

The Cybercrime Law in Oman also poses a threat to press freedom, as Article 19 stipulates penalties of imprisonment and fines for anyone using information networks or information technology means to produce, publish, distribute, purchase, or possess anything that could undermine religious values or public order. This provision has been used to target social media activists and individuals active in politics or religious freedom.

Moreover, restrictions on freedom of expression represent one of the greatest challenges to press freedom, transparency, and neutrality. For instance, Article 97 of the Penal Code imposes imprisonment for up to 7 years for anyone who criticizes the Sultan, his family, or his authority. This provision has been used to silence opposition and punish individuals who dare to express their opinions.

The OCHRD regards Oman’s restrictive approach towards press freedom and media oversight as cause for concern. The Press and Publications Law, which needs to be updated and keep pace with technological advancements and social media platforms, imposes stringent control over journalists and media outlets. Additionally, restrictions on freedom of expression, whether in the Omani Penal Code or the Cybercrime Law, and the criminalization of criticism against the Sultan and his family, indicate a lack of tolerance towards opposing views to prevailing laws or official directives, disregarding the principles of press freedom and expression.

It is imperative for Oman to take steps to reform its laws and practices concerning media freedom and expression in line with international human rights standards, to enhance transparency, accountability, and a vibrant media landscape that serves the people. The legislature in Oman must ensure that journalists and media professionals can carry out their work without fear of censorship, harassment, or imprisonment.

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