Freedom of the Press
Oman’s 1984 Press and Publications Law is one of the most restrictive statutes of its kind in the Arab world, and serves to create a highly censored and subdued media environment. Articles 29, 30, and 31 of the 1996 Basic Law guarantee freedom of expression and freedom of the press. However, these rights are abridged in practice. Libel is treated as a criminal offense, and journalists can be fined or imprisoned for voicing criticism of the sultan or printing material that leads to “public discord, violates the security of the state, or abuses a person’s dignity or rights.” The Telecommunications Act allows the authorities to prosecute individuals for any message, sent through any means of communication, that violates public order and morals. The already repressive press environment was further threatened in October 2011, when Sultan Qaboos bin Said issued a broadly worded decree that banned the publication of anything that might jeopardize the security of the state, especially as it relates to the security forces. The ban includes all forms of media, including the internet.
Journalists are required to obtain licenses to practice, and since 2005 they have been obliged to reapply each year as an employee of a specific media outlet, effectively excluding the practice of freelance journalism. Journalists may have their licenses revoked at any time for violating press laws. The government also retains the right to close down any media outlet at any time. In September 2011, journalist Yousef al-Haj and editor in chief Ibrahim al-Ma’mari were sentenced to five months in jail for publishing an article in the newspaper Azzamn that was critical of the Ministry of Justice and accused Justice Minister Mohamed al-Hanai of corruption. Azzamn was ordered to shut down for a month. Haroun al-Mukbeeli, a Justice Ministry employee who allegedly provided information for the article, was also sentenced to five months in jail.
The Ministry of Information may legally censor any material regarded as politically, culturally, or sexually offensive in both domestic and foreign media, and it has blacklisted several authors and specific books that were deemed controversial. Information and news are widely available, and foreign broadcasts are accessible via satellite in urban areas. However, there is a basic lack of coverage of local topics, such as the economy, unemployment, and minority and migrant issues. Reporters have been jailed in the past for coverage of colleagues’ arrests, and self-censorship is widespread. As a result, physical attacks and intimidation directed at journalists are rare.
In addition to the two major state-owned newspapers, the government owns four radio stations and two television stations. There are eight privately run newspapers currently operating in Oman. Private newspapers are able to sustain themselves largely on local and international advertising revenues rather than sales, and many no longer need state subsidies. There is one privately owned satellite network that refrains from broadcasting politically controversial content.
About 68 percent of the population used the internet in 2011. Oman’s internet and telecommunications sector was monopolized by the state-run Oman Telecommunications Company until 2008, when the government allowed a privately owned competitor, Nawras, to begin providing internet service. Despite the limited opening of the telecommunications sector, the government still exercises considerable control over the internet. The Internet Service Manual stipulates a lengthy list of prohibited content, including defamation of the ruling family and false data or rumors. The government routinely blocks websites deemed sexually offensive or politically controversial. Some bloggers have been able to use virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass the censorship of local internet service providers, but in August 2010 the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) proposed a new law that would ban the use of VPNs and subject violators to fines of 500 Omani rials ($1,290). The proposed law has yet to be enacted, but VPN access has been widely blocked. Popular web forums for voicing dissent, such as Farrq, Al-Harah, and Al-Sabla, have also been subject to temporary shutdowns. Private communications including mobile telephone calls, e-mail, and exchanges in internet chat rooms are monitored.