The Omani government has made a grave error of judgement in allowing its judicial system to close down a local newspaper, Azamn, and to enforce a Court decision to imprison three of its journalists, after they reported on alleged corruption within the judiciary. An independent enquiry should have been launched into the newspaper’s claims, writes Pat Lancaster
The privately owned Azamn newspaper was suspended from publishing last month and the three journalists were detained in connection with an article published on July 26. The country’s Ministry of Information warned that the publication could be shut down permanently if it continued to print allegations which cast aspersions on the impartiality of the the head of the country’s Supreme Court.
Ibrahim Al-Mamari, editor-in-chief of Azamn and deputy and managing editor Youssef Al-Balushi were both fined OMR3,000 ($7,791) and jailed for three years, according to reports by Reuters news agency. A third journalist, Zaher Al Abri, was fined OMR1,000 ($2,597) and sentenced to a year in jail.
The three respected, professional men were described in a statement as exceeding the limits of free speech and drifting into “harming of the pillars of the state, the judiciary”. Mamari and Balushi were found guilty of undermining the prestige of the state, disturbing public order, misusing the internet and publishing details of a personal status case by Muscat Court of First Instance.
Balushi was also individually convicted of slander and publishing a report on Mamari’s arrest in violation of a ban imposed by the Information Ministry, Reuters added.
Bail Mamari and Balushiin the case of an appeal was set at OMR50,000 ($130,000) and OMR5,000 ($13,000) for Abri.
The government’s actions are particularly regrettable given Oman’s reputation for being one of the most open and transparent Gulf states. It is inviting censure by its heavy-handed response to the accusations, which should have been addressed by close investigation by a independent authority. The way to quash such assertions is by opening them up to discussion and debate not by attempting to sweep them under the carpet.
The international human rights agency, Amnesty International has been outspoken in condemning the government’s actions. Amnesty claims the three men were being punished for carrying out “legitimate journalistic work”.
The July 26 article accused the head of Oman’s Supreme Court and the chairman of the Judicial Council of intervening in the outcome of verdicts on behalf of influential officials, according to the organisation. Two days later Mamari was summoned by authorities and detained for questioning, followed by Abri on August 3, Amnesty said.
Balushi, referred to as Youssef al-Haj by Amnesty, then published a series of articles based on interviews with the vice president of Oman’s Supreme Court Ali al-No’mani, reportedly confirming allegations of corruption made in the previous article.
He was arrested following the latest of these published on August 9, Amnesty said.
The deputy director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, Magdalena Mughrabi said the three writers had committed no crime and should be immediately released. They were, she insisted, being punished for carrying out legitimate journalistic work. Amnesty claims that local authorities have carried out a “string of journalist arrests in recent weeks signalling a growing crackdown on freedom of expression in the country”.
Meanwhile, Oman’s state news agency published a statement describing the articles as “a flagrant violation of the limits and ethics of freedom of expression” and warned that the articles were damaging to one of the country’s most important institutions.
However, as in most Gulf states, locals frequently complain of a certain amount of “croneyism” among those in positions of high office. Given a tailor-made opportunity to display that Oman is an open and transparent society that is not “tarred with the same brush” as some of its despotic near neighbours, the Omani government elected instead to shoot itself in the foot by making victims of the accusers. Not a smart move.
This article by Pat Lancaster used information supplied by news agencies and Gulf Business