We believe that these recent arrests and prosecutions are part of an ongoing attempt to silence and curtail the right to press freedom as well as freedom of expression.
Since October 10, 2016, the three Azamn journalists sentenced to years in prison by the Court of First Instance in Muscat are free, pending the outcome of the appeal which is expected on November 7th.
Ibrahim Al-Maamari, the editor-in-chief of the Omani independent newspaper Azamn, and managing editor Youssef Al-Haj were freed after the appeal court, at their lawyers’ request, reduced the amount of bail to 2,000 rials (4,000 euros) from the 50,000 rials (110,000 euros) set by the court that convicted them. The third defendant in this case, Azamn local news editor Zaher Al-Abri, was already released conditionally on August 22nd.
On September 26, 2016, the Court of First Instance had imposed harsh jail sentences on these three journalists and ordered the permanent closure of the Azamn newspaper.
The arrests of the journalists and the closure of the newspaper came after a report, published in July 2016, which accused unnamed officials of influencing the Chief Magistrate of the Supreme Court, to intervene in judicial proceedings. The Vice-President of the Supreme Court thanked the newspaper for the report and for dissemination of "facts without a slur on anybody".
More precisely, Ibrahim Al-Maamari and Yousef Al-Haj were convicted of four common charges – “disturbing public order, misuse of the Internet, publishing details of a civil case, and undermining the prestige of the state.” They were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, in addition to a fine of 3000 RO and a ban on working as a journalist for a period of one year. Two additional charges were brought against Yousef Al-Haj: “publishing about a case for which a decree had been issued to ban news about it, and slander.”
Journalist Zaher Al-Abri was sentenced to one-year imprisonment and fined 1000 RO after being found guilty of using “an information network [the Internet] for the dissemination of material that might be prejudicial to public order.”
These harsh sentences are a clear attempt to hinder the work of journalists and to curtail the right to freedom of expression and opinion in Oman. The imprisonment of journalists whose only crime was to exercise their profession in a legitimate manner and the censorship of this story do not bode well for the future of journalism and civil liberties in the Sultanate, which is ranked 125th out of 180 countries in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
In relation with the Azamn case, many online activists showing support with the journalists were targeted by the authorities. Saqr Al-Balushi, and writer Hamood Al-Shukaily, arrested both respectively on October 5th and August 14th, remain in detention. Mohammed Al-Harthi, however, who was arrested on August 18th in relation with posts he made on Twitter in which he expressed his views on corruption and solidarity with the Azamn newspaper, was released the following day.
The undersigned organisations express serious concern at the ISS’ systematic targeting of journalists, writers, human rights defenders including online activists, and view it as a deplorable and urgent threat to media freedom and freedom of expression in Oman.
We call on you to use your influence in Oman to:
1. Protect freedom of the media and freedom of speech, especially online;
2. Revoke the closure order of Azamn newspaper by the Ministry of Information;
3. Revoke the sentences issued against journalists Ibrahim Al-Maamari, Yousef Al-Haj and Zaher Al-Abri;
4. Immediately and unconditionally release online activists Mohammed Al-Harthi and Saqr Al-Balushi;
5. Ensure that the ISS stops its attacks on media freedom and freedom of expression and its targeting of journalists, online activists and other human rights defenders;
6. To guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders including journalists, writers and online activists in Oman are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.