Oman’s Ongoing Attack on the Freedom of Expression

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In January 2011, a set of protests and demonstrations demanding economic, political and social change took place in Oman. These events turned violent after the Omani authorities tried to dissolve them. Since then, security agencies such as the Internal Security Service (ISS) have increasingly targeted pro-reform activists for views they expressed on social media. Moreover, courts have sentenced them to prison sentences to up to three years, set by Oman’s Penal Code, and based on loosely defined laws that repress freedom of speech. 


Article 29 of Oman’s Constitution limits  freedom of expression “within the limits of the Law”. This facilitates the government to effectively criminalise the creation or dissemination of material considered to disrupt public stability or to be critical of the State. Articles 26 to 31 of the 1984 Press and Publications Law further restrict these freedoms by prohibiting publications that may offend the Sultan or the State, violate public morality or religion; or harm public order, internal and external security, and the national currency.  In addition, the Cyber Crimes Law of 2011 imposes a jail term of up to three years on anyone who insults religion or religious leaders; prejudices public morals/ethics and social values; or invades privacy by publishing news, electronic photos or photographs, or information, even if true or correct. 


In January 2018, the government issued a new penal code that increased maximum penalties for crimes “undermining the state”. Article 97 increased the punishment for insulting the sultan and his authority from between six months and three years in prison, to between three and seven years in prison. Article 269 also increased the prison sentence for committing blasphemy or insulting Islam from between ten days and three years, to between three to ten years. The ambiguity of  this legal provision has contributed to a pattern of repression on freedom of expression in Oman, as many critics face harassment and threats of unclear criminal charges for activities that “insult the sultan or the country”. As a consequence, bloggers and online activists are arrested and detained for up to several years under these charges. 


In August 2016, Azzaman newspaper was closed under government order, after publishing two issues that accused high-ranked Omani officials of pressuring the judiciary to change the ruling on an inheritance case. Editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Ma’mari, deputy editor Zaher al-Abri and journalist Yousef al-Haj were all arrested following the newspaper’s closure but were released after their bails were reduced to 2000-5000 riyals. In the end, the Oman’s Supreme Court ordered the closure of the newspaper in 2017. 


On January 17th 2017, former diplomat and online human rights activist Hassan al-Basham passed away while being in custody in one of the Omani prisons. He was first arrested in September 2015 by the Internal Security Service (ISS) and sentenced to three years in prison for posting “offensive social media posts”. Due to al-Basham’s deteriorating health, in January 2017, the High Court of Oman revoked the prison sentence, but requests for his medical examination were fatally ignored. 


Furthermore, former media presenter Khaled al-Rashdi was sentenced to one year prison and a $2600 fine on January 2nd 2018 by the Court of First Instance in Muscat. The basis of this sentence was Article 19 of the Cyber Crime Law, which applies such sentence to “any person who uses the informational network or the information technology facilities to produce or publish or distribute or purchase or possess whatsoever that might prejudice the public order or religious values”. Throughout the year, the ISS detained Youssef al-Araimi, Mohammad al-Maktoumi, Uday al-Omairi and Hatem al-Maliki for being critical of the State on social media. In addition, more than 23 books written by Omani authors were impounded during the 23rd Muscat International Book Fair. Most of these books dealt directly or indirectly with the events of the 2011 protest movement.


In January 2019, police briefly detained two journalists from the Hala FM radio station while they covered a protest in Muscat over unemployment and forced some social media users present at the protest to delete their photos and videos. In September of the same year, the Royal Oman Police arrested an expatriate for posting a video on social media in which he threw his Omani card on the ground and allegedly used “abusive language” about the police. Social media users claimed that Omani author Musalla Al-Ma’ashani was arrested in November 2019 for printing a book documenting tribal activities in Dhofar. It was meant to be submitted to the Ministry of Information for display at the 2020 Muscat International Book fair. 


The ongoing sanitary crisis of COVID-19 has brought to light a new way for the Omani authorities to limit freedom of expression in the country. On March 22nd, the Supreme Committee for Dealing with COVID-19, which was established to combat the spread of the virus in the sultanate, ordered all forms of publications to cease printing and circulating, as well as the import of foreign press. 


Oman’s highly restrictive laws on freedom of expression do not reach minimum international human rights standards. Freedom of expression is enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Article 5 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and Article 7 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, all of which are ratified by Oman. The sultanate’s current legislative framework guarantees suppression rather than promotion of human rights. Rather than raise their voices to express political dissent or exchange dialogue for social reform, Omani citizens are forced to remain silent, and without sufficient information, for fear of arbitrary arrest and detention.