This month has been a pretty bad one for bloggers here in the Sultanate. It all kicked off with a statement on the 4th of June from the Public Prosecution office stating:
“The Public Prosecution recently noticed the growing of offensive writings and inciting calls by some individuals under the pretext of free expression of opinion. This is a blatant violation of the sanctity of the personal life of individuals. It is also a libel against them either in their individual or job capacity. It has been noticed that rumours and provoking others to carry out negative acts that may eventually harm the homeland, individuals and national interests are growing.
These statements or acts are contrary to our elite religious teachings, rich traditions and noble morals that are deeply integrated in the Omani society and contrary to the values on which its sons are being raised upon.
They are also creating a reality that is against public law and order and morals. Moreover, they are legally criminalised regardless of the audio, print, visual, telecommunications and IT means used in this. These means include e-forums and social networking websites.
Henceforth, the Public Prosecution advises all citizens and residents that it will take the necessary legal actions against perpetrators of such statements or acts, as well as those who promote or provoke or assist them through any means.”
This was shortly followed a couple of days later with the announcement that a number of Omani bloggers and writers had been arrested. From various news reports, it seems as many as 22 people were arrested. It seems that all of these 22 people were members of the Arabic online Omani community - not all necessarily Omani, but Arab of some description, living, and more importantly, writing/commenting/tweeting/blogging in Oman.
I have to admit that this development did get me a little concerned, as I have been brutally honest in my experiences with HSBC here in the Sultanate, as well as Horizon Gym amongst others. But I guess what's done is done, and Horizon Gym to be fair to them turned it around into a positive and made a better effort at removing peoples numbers from their contact list. HSBC just chose to ignore me, which is totally fine by me, but I understand that my rant was read by the senior management of the bank here. I do still use them as my bank, but thats simply because I don't want to go through the nonsense of setting everything up with another bank here. I never did get my Al Fair vouchers!
So, back to the topic at hand, the bloggers plight in the Sultanate. As best put by a comment I read over on the Dragon's blog yesterday, some handy rules for writing about Oman on the internet, when you live, or are present in, Oman:
- Don't make unsubstantiated claims that may offend the pride of a powerful individual or entity, nor anything controversial which may invoke strong negative reactions from a group of people.
- Don't question the competence, decisions or rulings of the authorities.
- If you were to decide to raise an issue, make your points vague enough so your intended subject could not be construed as a direct criticism.
E.G., apply a bit of common sense. We are living in an absolute monarchy here in Oman, with a benign Dictator at the helm. I say benign, because look at how bad things can go.... look at what that lunatic Gaddafi got up to in Libya. Life here, in general, is pretty damn good, and HM is primarily to thank for that. There are hospitals, highways, schools, growing business outside of the oil & gas sector and various elements of democratic reform ongoing and a whole bunch more developments taking place. There are even 2 new Universities (that I'm aware of at least) rolling out (Universities of Buraimi and Ibra) as a result of the demonstrations held across the Sultanate last year. And women's rights in Oman are a hell of a lot better than those in other GCC countries. We are living in the worlds most charming police state.
I don't read Arabic but what I understand these arrested people did was directly criticize the top man himself for a number of reasons. As I wrote above... we are in the Sultanate of Oman, where the Sultan rules absolutely - whether that's "right" or "wrong" it is how things are here, and is the rule of law. So one can obviously understand why there has been a crack down - if someone was saying openly that your head of state was "something not very nice" and calling people to protest and strike, well would you not want to act?
Now of course a bunch of the free speech brigade have condemned these recent arrests, with the most notable being the Human Rights Watch, which called this flood of arrests 'A campaign of intimidation', and Amnesty International who referred to it as a 'blatant attempt to stamp out freedom of speech'. Strong words indeed, and perhaps true. To me it looks like a way to try and ensure we dont get a repeat of the 2011 "spring". Obviously heavy-handed actions do not always work too well, we've Libya, Egypt, Bahrain and of course Syria as all-too uncomfortable reminders of what can happen. I remain confident that no one in the Sultanate wants what has happened in these countries to happen here. I still believe that the root of the problem lies within the rising cost of living and the difference between the number of new jobs created each year and new of-age Omani's who are looking for these jobs. An age-old problem effecting countries in every corner of the world. Oman has become a victim of it's own success with a population larger than it can potentially sustain at this time, and there is no quick fix for this. Business must be stimulated to create jobs, but constant strikes and protests by elements of the national workforce does not instil confidence in foreign investors to stimulate business and thus jobs. Round and round we go.
It seems to me that this recent crack down and news releases are mainly tied to 2 issues: 1 don't incite hate towards the State (eg insult the Sultan / call people to protest / etc.) and, 2, be warned that libel / defamation of businesses will be enforced.
Part 1 I don't have an issue with, I'm a guest here and ultimately if I really don't like it, I'll leave - I'm free to do so beyond my Contractual obligations with my employer. As for the plight of Omani nationals living here... that's not something I am going to get into. It's Part 2 that really gets me a little unsure of things:
Libel is defined as a published false statement that is damaging to a person's reputation; a written defamation. Defamation is defined as a false accusation of an offence or a malicious misrepresentation of someone's words or actions.
Now I am always careful about what I actually blog about, but in nearly 3 years of writing, I've of course ruffled a few feathers of businesses here, but the real issue is comments. The legal question is, the comments are hosted on a blog which is hosted outside of Oman, and there is no way to guarantee that the poster of any such comment is even in Oman when they comment, and so how can a prosecuting company claim libel (per the laws of Oman) on something that may have been written by a Frenchman, living in Spain, hosted on a sever in the USA? I suspect that this wont be even considered and it'll be me, the blog owner that gets it in the neck. Heavy handed, but perhaps effective.
This has been the reason why I generally do not moderate comments on this blog to date - being that I follow the rules of the USA (where the blog is physically hosted - and also why I state if I received a payment or benefit for a blog article) and true freedom of speech and expression is allowed there. And as the libel laws in the Sultanate have not changed in years - I shall continue to carry on as I have, not moderating comments. There is a spam-filter that automatically moderates blog posts it considers is spam, and I will, in very, very rare occasions remove a comment if it directly insults a specific person by name - this isn't a business and I don't want legal fees if at all I can avoid them.