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A Year After Newspaper Ban, Independent Media Remain Under Siege in Oman

Categories: Censorship, Free Expression, Human Rights, Legal Threats, Media, Oman, Middle East & North Africa
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“The website has been suspended by decision of the information minister”, a note on the homepage of the banned Azamn newspaper says.

It has now been more than a year since Omani authorities closed the independent Arabic-language newspaper Azamn over its coverage of corruption in the Sultanate. Yousef Al-Haj [2], one of the paper's editors, remains in prison, serving a one-year jail sentence. Two other Azamn editors, Ibrahim Al-Maamari and Zaher Al-Abri were also detained and put on trial, but later released.

Oman has been ruled since 1970 by Sultan Qaboos bin Said [3], who came to power after overthrowing his father, Said Ben Timor. Since then, he has held the most important positions in the country besides being its sole Sultan: Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Minister of Finance, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chairman of the Supreme Council of Planning, and President of the Central Bank.

The Sultan’s years of ruling [4] have been characterized by the persistent efforts of the security forces, especially the Internal Security Service (ISS), to confiscate public freedoms, including freedom of the press, and to torture [5] and intimidate human rights defenders [6], independent journalists, bloggers and other activists, and imprison them. Authorities are systematically curtailing [7] peaceful and legitimate activities in the field of human rights and preventing citizens including activists from expressing their views freely – whether online or offline– about the public affairs of their country such as corruption in government agencies and institutions.

The targeting and closure of Azamn newspaper and the imprisonment of three of its editors last year is a severe blow to press freedom in the country. Azamn is an independent newspaper that reported on corruption in Oman (which is an absolute monarchy) since its establishment in 2007, until it was banned by the authorities in August 2016.

On 28 July 2016, security forces arrested Ibrahim Al-Maamari, Azamn's editor-in-chief, after the paper published an article on 26 July 2016 entitled “supreme parties tie the hands of justice”, which addressed corruption in the judiciary, and the interference of senior officials in judicial decisions. The report accused government officials of pressuring judges in the country's Supreme Court to overturn a verdict in an inheritance case

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The July 26, 2016 edition of Azamn newspaper which featured on its front-page a report with the headline: “supreme parties tie the hands of justice”. Photo source: the Facebook page of Azamn

On 3 August 2016, the ISS summoned Zaher Al-Abri, member of the editorial committee, to appear before the Special Division, and detained him upon arrival. On 09 August 2016, the ISS arrested deputy editor Yousef Al-Haj, who was acting as the newspaper's editor-in-chief after Al-Maamari’s arrest. The newspaper was closed indefinitely after the Minister for Information gave the order that “the publication and circulation of the newspaper by all means, including online, is not allowed starting on 9 August 2016.”

On 26 September 2016, the Court of First Instance in Muscat held its final hearing in the trial of Al-Maamari, Al-Haj, and Al-Abri, and issued prison sentences against them. The court also ordered the newspaper to close permanently. Al-Maamari and Al-Haj were both convicted of “disturbing public order”, “misuse of the Internet”, “publishing details of a civil case”, and “undermining the prestige of the state.” Al-Haj was further found guilty of violating a publication ban and slanderThey were both sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, a fine of 3000 Omani Riyals (US $7,800) each and banned from working as journalists for one year. Al-Abri was sentenced to one-year imprisonment and fined a thousand Riyals (US $2600) after being found guilty of using “an information network [the Internet] for the dissemination of material that might be prejudicial to public order.” His bail was set at 5000 OR (US $13000), and he had already been released on 22 August 2016 prior to sentencing.

At a hearing held on 26 December 2016, the Court of Appeal acquitted [9] Al-Abri while sentencing Al-Haj to one year in prison and Al-Maamari to six months in prison, to include the time they spent in detention. On 10 April 2017, Al-Maamari was released [9] from the Central Prison in Muscat, after serving his six-month sentence, leaving Al-Haj in prison serving his one-year sentence.

The court of appeal also revoked the decision to shut down “Azamn” newspaper which was issued by the Ministry of Information.

Despite the court's decision to lift the ban on Azamn, the Omani government has continued to target the newspaper. On 8 January 2017, the Minister of Information issued a directive that extended the closure of “Azamn” for three months. On 8 May 2017, the Minster of Information personally signed another directive which extended the closure of “Azamn” for an additional three months – once again challenging the Court of Appeal's decision to re-allow the newspaper to publish.

The ongoing closure of Azamn and the targeting of its journalists is not the only case of press freedom violation that has recently taken place in Oman. Other violations include the blocking [10] of the website of the independent magazine Mowatin and exercising pressure [11] on Albalad, the country's first independent online newspaper, to put an end to its operations.

By continuing to close Azamn and imprison its journalist Al-Haj, it seems that Omani authorities are still unwilling to put an end to the broader crackdown on press freedom.

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) urges the authorities in Oman to:
1. Immediately and unconditionally release Yousef Al-Haj;
2. Provide a secure environment for Azamn newspaper to carry out its journalistic work;
3. Protect freedom of the press in the country; and
4. Ensure in all circumstances the ability of human rights defenders and journalists in Oman to carry out their legitimate human rights work without fear of retaliation and without any restrictions, including judicial harassment.

The Gulf Center for Human Rights [12] (GCHR) is an independent, non-profit and non-governmental organisation that works to provide support and protection to human rights defenders (including independent journalists, bloggers, lawyers, etc.) in the Gulf region and its neighbouring countries by promoting freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. This post was written by the center's executive director Khalid Ibrahim [13].