Oman: Artistic censorship and harassment of online activists continues

Expression

On 7th April 2020, 29 human rights organisations, including the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, issued a statement calling on the government of Oman to permanently lift the ban on all Voice Over IP (VoIP) platforms used for voice and video internet calls. Although Oman and other countries in the Gulf Region have longstanding bans on voice and video internet applications and platforms under the pretext of protecting national telecommunication companies, the urgency of lifting the ban has been brought into sharp focus by the COVID-19 global pandemic and people’s increasing reliance on VoIP platforms to maintain professional and personal relationships and the sharing of information.

While the Omani government has decided to exceptionally and temporarily unblock applications that allow for distance learning, such as Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, Google Hangouts and Zoom, popular VoIP apps such as WhatsApp, Skype and FaceTime remain blocked. These restrictions severely impinge on people’s right to freedom of expression, privacy and access to information and create additional hurdles for journalists, human rights defenders and civil society organisations, many of whom rely on technology and information-sharing platforms to maintain and promote freedom of expression and an open civic space.

In other developments, the 25th edition of the Muscat Book Fair was held between 22nd February and 2nd March 2020 at the Oman Convention Exhibition Centre. However, censorship was widespread at the Book Fair with many books by Omani writers seized and banned from display. According to reports by the Omani Centre for Human Rights, almost 50 titles from a diverse range of fields such as literature, philosophy, politics and social studies, were censored, most of which were written by Omani authors either resident in Oman or abroad. The decision to censor certain titles was allegedly based on the government’s disapproval of the activities of certain authors.

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights also criticised the censorship of books as an ‘attack on freedom of expression in the country’ and pointed out that such behaviour directly contradicts a speech made by Sultan Haitham bin Tariq on 23rd February 2020 in which he stated that, “It is a source of pride for us that citizens and residents of the dear land of Oman live by the grace of God under the rule of law and institutions, a state based on the principles of freedom, equality and equal opportunity. Based on justice, the dignity, rights, and freedoms of individuals are protected, including freedom of expression guaranteed by the basic laws of the state.”

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights and the Omani Association for Human Rights have previously criticised Oman’s status as a ‘special guest’ at the 2019 Paris Book Fair in spite of the widespread censorship of artistic and political expression in Oman. Representatives from Oman attended the Paris Book Fair in March 2019 despite the authorities having confiscated a large number of books during the Muscat International Book Fair which was held less than a month before Oman was received as a ‘special guest’ at the 2019 Paris Book Fair.

In addition to artistic censorship, the Omani Government has continued to restrict freedom of expression online by targeting broadcasters and human rights defenders for their posts on Twitter and other social media platforms.

On 25th February 2020, broadcaster, Adel Al-Kasbi, was arrested after posting on his Twitter account the following: “I dreamed that I had become a minister and built a palace in Crimea but it was very, very expensive. The structure only cost me 13 million Omani riyals.” Al-Kasbi is a television and radio presenter who uses Twitter to disseminate his views on public affairs and to denounce corruption. He was released on bail on 26th February 2020.

Local reports confirmed the arrest of four other citizens who retweeted his tweet, including former Shura Council member, Salem Al-Awfi.

In a separate incident, on 9th February 2020, a woman human rights defender announced through an anonymous Twitter account that the Omani Feminists Twitter account had been suspended due to ‘circumstances beyond our control.’ According to reports received by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, the suspension of the account is linked to threats received from the Special Division, the executive arm of the Internal Security Service, in retaliation against the Omani Feminists’ work in defending and promoting the rights of Omani women.

In early June 2020, GCHR received reports that the trial in Oman of writer and civil society activist Musallam Al-Ma’ashani had been postponed indefinitely due to the spread of novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). He was released on 25th April 2020, on bail of 3,000 OMR ($7,800). Previously, a letter issued by the Public Prosecution in Salalah on 12th March 2020 had asked Al-Ma’ashani to appear before the Court of Appeal in Salalah on 6th April 2020 to start the first hearing in the trial of the case No. 25715 of 2019.

Musallam Al-Ma’ashani was arrested on 14th November 2019 by security forces at the Sarafit border crossing with Yemen as he was returning to his home country, Oman. He was transferred to Arzat Central Prison in Salalah, Dhofar Governorate, where he was denied access to a lawyer and to his daily eye and allergy medications. Local sources reported that Al-Ma’ashni began a hunger strike while in detention.

Al-Ma’ashani was previously subjected to a campaign of legal harassment in 2013 in relation to the publication of his book entitled, “Dhofar: The Diary of February 25.” Although he did not print or distribute the book in Oman, he was tried in relation to the content of the book, which includes three chapters on the 2011 popular mass protests in Salalah, which resulted in a large-scale campaign of arrests. The book also features a series of photos documenting the events during the protests.

At a hearing held on 29th May 2013, the Salalah Court of First Instance sentenced Al-Ma’ashani to prison on two charges: distributing publications without a licence, and writings that incite hatred and spread discord among members of society. The court sentenced him on the first charge to five months’ imprisonment and a fine of 500 Omani Rials (US$1,300), and on the second charge to six months’ imprisonment and a fine of 500 Omani Rials. The two sentences were combined and the heaviest was imposed. The prison sentence was reduced to just two months with bail of 500 Omani Rials and his publications were ordered to be confiscated.