x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Oman urged to loosen media control

Internet websites in Oman are urging the government to loosen its control of the media and allow crime to be covered in the local press.

The Omani website www.omanforum.com, is one of several sites that feature lively online debates on subjects ranging from religious sensitivities to government corruption.
The Omani website www.omanforum.com, is one of several sites that feature lively online debates on subjects ranging from religious sensitivities to government corruption.

Muscat // Internet websites in Oman are urging the government to loosen its control of the media and allow crime and corruption to be covered in the local press. Internet websites such as Sabla Oman (www.omania2.net) and Omanforum (www.omanforum.com) have become popular forums, inviting open debate on topics ranging from religious sensitivity to corruption of government officials. Last month, a leaked government document posted on Sabla Oman suggested the ministry of higher education was granting free government scholarships to the children of some officials "despite not qualifying for them on their own merits". Riyadh al Balushi, a Muscat-based blogger, said there were several websites that published leaked documents to shame officials. The documents were obtained by insiders working within the civil service and then handed over to the bloggers. But media experts say there is always a threat that the government will prosecute the authors for their statements, even if they are posted anonymously. "They track you down the way they did with Ali al Zuwaidi or try with the Omantel whistle-blower," Mohammed al Ajmi, a former journalist, said. Zuwaidi, known as Bin Daris in the blogging community, was sentenced by a primary court to a one-month prison sentence and fined 200 Omani rials (Dh1,900) last April for his role as a moderator on Sabla. He was charged in two cases: one for leaking a confidential document from the Council of Ministers that ordered the stop of a popular Arabic radio programme called Hadha Al Sabah (This Morning). The live broadcast allowed callers to criticise the decisions and conduct of government officials. His sentence was reduced to 11 days with the rest suspended. Zuwaidi was acquitted on the second charge of being a moderator for a forum in which an unknown blogger posted a statement in which he accused Mohammed bin Ali al Wohaibi, then chief executive officer of Omantel, of nepotism and corruption. The blogger's IP address was disguised and traced to Berlin. Mr al Wohaibi later resigned from his post and was appointed an undersecretary at the ministry of transport. "It does not help when the government does not justify or defend its policy on media censorship as to why crimes, such as rapes or murders, are not reported or why officials are not shamed when they are prosecuted with corruption. Officials need to come on record to explain if freedom of expression is guaranteed without fear of harassment," Ajmi, the former journalist, said. A ministry of information official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, denied that the government censored the media and said crimes needed to be reported. "We, at the ministry of information, guarantee media freedom and we think crimes, when they happen, must be reported. If they are not, then perhaps local publications must do something about it," the official said. Arun Solomon, a former editor of the Oman Tribune, said the information ministry had unwritten rules that restrict newspaper editors from accepting or publishing certain stories. "Editors will rarely publish a piece that criticises a cabinet minister or grievances from members of the public made towards a government office. Journalists will risk harassment if they force the issue and publications may face closure," Solomon said. Three journalists, according to Said al Hashemi, a member of Oman's Writers Association, were briefly detained last year over reports published in local newspapers. "There is corruption in some institutions. If we don't have the right to criticise then there is a problem," Hashemi said. It is then left to bloggers to report on crimes or air grievances on privately owned websites, although attempts are sometimes made to block them. "Two months ago, I discovered that a blog I keep on IT law in Oman was blocked while I was abroad. It took me a whole month to get it unblocked and I had to make an official complaint to the Telecommunication Regulation Authority," Mr Balushi said. foreign.desk@thenational.ae