Saleh noted how the absence of a free press, and extremely vague and restrictive laws related to media and internet, are increasingly being used to protect senior Government Officials from any accountability for their performance, and indeed to shield them from possible discussion of corruption. As a result, bloggers and web-based discussion fora are the only place such things can be placed in the public domain. However, new laws are now being used to muzzle these internet voices too.
Certainly in Oman, the draconian Article 61 (especially clauses 61.3 and 61.4) was only recently put on the books, and prescribes up to 1 year in prison for a wide range of 'offences', the definition of which is untested by legal precedent, or even simple common sense:
"publishing anything deemed...contrary to public order and morality".
And that's in addition to the already rather nasty criminal law rule 74 and the already extremely broad (and criminal, not civil) Omani defamation laws. (For more detail comparing Omani and British law on this topic, see a post by the well known BlueChi.)
The recent arrest, detention and trial of Omani journalist and Forum Moderator Ali al-Zwaidi even prompted a joint letter by Reporters Without Borders and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, written to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, in protest at his arrest under Article 61. In the end, Ali was found not guilty of the Art.61 charge, but he was sentenced to two weeks imprisonment on a second charge of releasing confidential government documents, most of which he served before trial. It is strongly thought by many in the Omani bloggosphere that his conviction was mainly meant 'pour encourager les autres'.
It's certainly something many of us think about.
A good example of the sort of attitude common in the Gulf is the punishment meted out to a Bahraini student for being critical of the University administration.
Female Bahraini Youth Activist Punished
13 September 2009 MANAMA — A female youth activist has to repeat a semester of five courses as a punishment for distributing a statement criticising situations at the only government university — the University of Bahrain (UoB).
Noor Hussain, 22, who is also a member of the students’ councils at the UoB, distributed the printed statement on Bahraini Student Day, marked on February 25, 2009. The punishment was decided last week.
“She wasn’t the only one who distributed the statement that criticised some educational practices at the UoB, but she was the only one who received such tough punishment,” ....
In fact, it has reached the point where the best place to obtain stories about things happening in one's home country is in the newspapers of one's neigbouring countries in the GCC (one of the reasons so many issues discussed here at Muscat Confidential are based on reports from the UAE press).
Oman's print press is well known to be plagued by extreme self censorship, under-reporting, and a total unwillingness to threaten in any way the establishment or Government Authorities. (see Essa's volte face earlier this week, and this from a newspaper that is more full of Government propaganda and flattery than any I've ever seen.) The Week, a free weekly ad sheet in the capital, pat themselves on the back for reporting a few minor instances of uncollected rubbish or a nonsensical local dog ordinance.
So, well done Saleh. And with the by-line and Omani resident too - very brave, esp. considering what happened to Arun Solomon (allegedly). I wonder if you will now be asked to have a quiet chat with ISS or the Ministry of Information?
Saleh's full story:
Bloggers Carry the Torch Saleh al-Shaibany
12 September 2009, Khaleej Times
How many times have we talked about freedom of speech but still face the problem? In Oman and the rest of the Gulf, journalists still face harassment with authorities when they attempt to pour out their grievances on the way officials conduct themselves.
Journalists can be detained and questioned over reports they wrote in the local newspapers. Publishers who are bold enough to print such news can face threats of closure of their publications. But officials still deny that the region is suppressing the media when the grip is tightening all the time.
For example, murders and rapes in Oman are rarely reported but you do find relatives of the victims talk about it. Doctors, too, who treat victims, obviously pass over the information to reporters who cannot get their publications to print.
A former newspaper editor in Muscat, an expatriate, said that unwritten rules from the information ministry to newspapers restrict editors what they accept and publish from their journalists. Editors will rarely publish a piece that criticises a cabinet minister or grievances from members of public made towards a government office.
The former editor said the problem is not confined to just Oman. He came across the same with his editing spells elsewhere in the region.
The Gulf is fast becoming a society where senior government officials are above the law of punishment and shaming them in the press is unacceptable.
But one glimmer of light is shining bright over the dark secrets shrouding the corridors of power. We see Internet bloggers, mostly young Gulf nationals, battling the suppression of freedom of expression in the media.
Websites become more vocal and in turn popular by reporting things mainstream media cannot dare report.
There are blogs and forums that explicitly publish leaked government documents and shame officials, yet the government in most cases uses legal methods to prosecute authors if they are residents in the country by quoting laws in the legislation that are widely seen erected to protect bureaucrats.
It is said these documents are obtained by insiders, working with corrupt officials, within the civil service. Then they are handed over to bloggers as proof. But media experts say that there is always a threat hanging over website discussions with the government tracing the IP addresses of moderators and contributors.
They track you down the way they did with a website moderator and a whistle blower of a telecom company. The website moderator, an Arabic journalist, after receiving leaked government papers splashed the evidence in his blog and was sentenced to one year imprisonment.
The message is that if the media will only carry the carefully designed propaganda initiated from high places then the public will have no choice but to turn to blogs and websites to get to know more about their countries. And so it is left to bloggers to report the truth about corruption, though attempts are sometimes made to block them. The success of the blogs will be tested in the next few years to see whether the attempt to force changes in the local media will be successful or not.
If authorities choose to continue with their control over media, then it will be safe to assume that a bigger number of journalists will go underground to report and write what they want to.
Saleh Al Shaibany is an Oman-based writer