Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Minister of Justice presses charges against Omani newspaper for 'insulting him and the Ministry'. Courts order shutdown and jail 2 journalists

Here's a topic for the incoming Majlis Al Shura to fix - Oman's antiquated media and 'freedom of expression' (sic) laws. In a criminal case brought by the Minister of Justice Mohamed Al-Hanai, a few days ago the Omani courts ruled against a small Muscat-based Arabic language paper Al-Zaman, ordering the paper closed for a month and sentencing an editor and journalist to 5 months in prison for publishing allegations of corruption within the Ministry. The case goes to appeal on Oct 15th.

These are the charges:
- insulting the Justice Ministry
- insulting the Justice Minister and his Under-Secretary
- trying to create divisions within Omani society
- violating article 60 of the civil code (the publications law)
- working as a journalist without a permit.

What an evil bunch. Who would ever commit such heinous acts? They were insulting a Minister of the Crown; impuning his reputation (albeit based on reports of allegations to the contrary). As for the last 3 charges, well, almost any publication can be found guilty of those if you want to.

[side note to UD from Consigliere on list above: - Yep (although not this Ministry), Yep (although not this Minister), arguably; yep (who hasn't?); yep (obviously) ].

Er, indeed Consigliere. Noted. Five months in prison, you say? I think we all await the results of the appeal on baited breath. However I fear the problem is with the law itself, not the legal process or the probity of the Courts. I bet I could legally convict my cat. with a violation of Article 60.

I mean, the person pressing charges is the Minister in charge of the law! I suspect his legal case is pretty well honed.

Photo: Insulted Minister of Justice for Oman Mohamed Al-Hanai shown here on left (Muscat Daily)

Dhofari Gucci blogged about it today too here.

The news of their arrest and conviction was reported world wide (Journalists write the world's news, remember chaps?) (eg. BBC) and was even reported in the Times of Oman. Here's the BBC report:

Oman editors jailed for 'insulting' justice minister

A court in Oman has jailed two senior journalists for five months for insulting the justice minister.

The court also ordered the closure of Ibrahim al-Maamary Yussuf and al-Haj's newspaper, Azzaman, for one month.

The newspaper had published articles alleging corruption inside the justice ministry.

The case stirred complaints about media clampdowns in the Gulf Arab nation, which faced small but significant pro-reform protests earlier this year.

An Omani official, Haron Saeed, was also sentenced to five months in jail in the same case.

All three were found guilty of "insulting" Justice Minister Mohamed al-Hanai and his under secretary of state by accusing them of "fraud, deception and prevarications" in an article published on 14 May.

Defence lawyer Ahmed al-Ajmi said he had succeeded in having the three freed on bail and the order closing the newspaper suspended, until an appeal against the verdicts on 15 October.

Oman's media laws are ill-defined, poorly served by legal president, and give broad reasons for courts to convict. Note the trial was a criminal case, not just a civil suit. And readers should know that in this specific case, under the law, it would NOT be a defense to simply prove the allegations are true.(!)

So, the Minister of Justice was well within his legal rights to press charges, presumably also feeling darn right insulted, and the courts would not have had difficulty reaching a legally valid verdict in his favour, as the law is so draconian. What the case has highlighted is the true state of play with journalism and law in the Sultanate, something I've blogged about often.

There is no real freedom of expression in Oman, especially in the licensed media. This blog has been blocked by the internet authorities several times in the past.

It's about time Omani law recognised that public criticism of the Government's performance or of Government Ministers, especially if true, is not the same thing as sedition. At the same time, journalists should know that reporting hearsay and accusations as if they were true means those claims first need to be substantiated, or they can be correctly considered libel in any reasonable jurisdiction. Even then it should be a civil case.

The big international Journalism NGO Reporters without Borders is also involved:


Reporters Without Borders has written to Sultan Qaboos, Oman’s head of state, expressing deep concern at tomorrow’s trial of Yousef Al-Haj, a journalist with the Muscat-based daily Al-Zaman, as a result of a complaint by justice minister Mohamed Al-Hanai about article published on 14 May.

In its letter, sent on 11 August, Reporters Without Borders voiced amazement at the range and scale of the charges brought against Al-Haj in response to the article, which quoted a justice ministry employee’s allegations about growing corruption within the ministry and favouritism in promotions.

“The proceedings are out of all proportion to the gravity of the offence and we call for their immediate withdrawal,” the letter said. “We fear that Yousef Al-Haj will not have time to organize his defence for the first hearing and will not get a fair trial.”

After being summoned at short notice for interrogation at the prosecutor’s office on 5 July, without having time to notify is lawyer, Al-Haj was charged with:

insulting the justice ministry
insulting the justice minister and his under-secretary
trying to create divisions within Omani society
violating article 60 of the civil code (the publications law)
working as a journalist without a permit.

Reporters Without Borders has been told that Al-Zaman editor Ibrahim Al-Mo’amari had applied for press cards for his journalists and had obtained the requested accreditation for all of them except Al-Haj.

On returning to the newspaper after his interrogation on 5 July, Al-Haj was surprised to find he had been banned by the information ministry from writing any further articles for publication. The ban is still in force. He had been interrogated by the police three times in the past without being banned.

The Reporters Without Borders letter also advised against closing Al-Zaman in response to an order issued by a Muscat court in connection with the case. “It would be regrettable if the Omani courts upheld this decision, which would violate freedom of the press and would give credence to the journalist’s allegedly defamatory claims.” The newspaper has nonetheless been closed.

The president of Al-Zaman’s board, its editor and one of its design editors are also to be tried tomorrow on a charge of illegally employing Al-Haj without a permit from the information ministry. Many journalists work without permits in Oman.

So, lots of good press for Oman in the global media, just as we approach the Majlis elections (which were supposed be the 'good news' story).

Still, Muscat Confidential says well done Justice Minister Mohamed Al-Hanai! His job is to enforce the law, and he's a man that clearly enjoys his work. He's got guts.

I mean, we've had riots, strikes, civil disobedience, looting, arson, demonstrations, sit-ins, arrests, imprisonment, wholesale changes to the Cabinet & the constitution, and then yet further protests. (and that's just what was reported in the Times of Oman)

And now people choose to insult the Minister of Legal Affairs by publishing tattle-tale from his junior staff about corruption and nepotism. My god - has it come to this? This, this is anarchy.

I join the honorable Minister of Justice in saying, No.

Not here.

Not now.

Here, we draw the line.

Insulting a Minister? How about you try a few months imprisoned at His Majesty's pleasure my son.


On a different topic entirely, Enforcing the law, Saudi Arabia Style.


  1. Not sure it's accurate to say: "it would NOT be a defense to simply prove the allegations are true." Article 173 of the Omani penal code, which deals with "affronts to public officials" by publication or otherwise, specifically states: "If the affront invokes a fact calling for the official's punishment or tarnishing his reputation, the suspect shall be declared innocent if the fact is related to the officials' function and proves to be true."

  2. C

    I guess it depends which charge - for Art 60 I understand truth is excluded as a defense?

    Here's an earlier case where charges were dropped even though the investigation showed no evidence.


    As I said then, if the Majlis, NGOs and Embassies get on it and raise a stink, these guys can be out of jail for good PDQ.

    But they'll still get a scare, eh?

  3. What's the big deal? What's new? There is no Arab country in the world that allows freedom of speech, freedom to question authority, freedom of expression and even a free mind!

    Add to that, there is no Arabic country with true democracy and accountability. The internet has done wonders to educate and inform those kept in the dark by their governments and there will be more Arab Springs. Sadly, it will take time, as all good things do, but the young Arabs that are born today and better educated, better informed and less likely to be intimidated and more likely to question authority; so the future looks bright-ish!


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