Tuesday, June 19, 2012

War on Bloggers

The past fortnight has been an unsettling one for bloggers, writers and activists in Oman. On June 4, a vague statement was released by the Public Prosecution announcing that the number of 'insulting' and 'negative' posts on local blogs and online forums under the pretext of free speech was on the rise. The statement went on to say that anyone caught engaging in such activities and spreading rumours that affect national security will be prosecuted.

A few days later, another statement confirmed that a number of bloggers and activists had been arrested for their online activities and that Omani authorities would not tolerate anyone who uses online platforms to insult, provoke and spread rumours.

The statements make no sense unless you understand what triggered them. Unfortunately though, the powers that be aren't really good at sharing information. After doing a little research through the grapevine, I now have a general idea of who was arrested and why. Regrettably, I can't share that information because then I would be committing the crime of - heaven forbid - spreading rumours!

What I can say is that on June 6, an odd piece was published in a local newspaper confirming that people were spreading negative rumours about our beloved head of state online. That type of criticism is taboo and we all know it.

Another disconcerting interview with the public prosecutor confirmed that they are keeping a watch on all social media platforms in Oman and that bloggers may spend up to two years in jail because the law is clear about such crimes. I tend to disagree. The law is not clear. What exactly constitutes negative writing or rumours? When the government doesn't share information with the public, everything becomes a rumour. As a blogger, I found the recent announcements vague and a little intimidating.

If the authorities are going to go around arresting bloggers for their writing and denying them immediate access to their lawyers, then perhaps they should elaborate more on the fine lines between criticism and insults according to the Omani law. Those of us who value freedom of expression but who are not interested in breaking the law would like to know. In the words of a blogger friend of mine, “How can you threaten people with jail/fines without explicitly setting out what the boundaries are?”

Media publications and the Internet in Oman have always been censored. The protests last year sparked a national discussion about ways to improve this country and handle corruption. For a while, it looked like we'd cracked some major censorship barriers, but now it seems we're back to square one. The days of going out into the streets to demand the removal of key government officials by name are over!

The Public Prosecution announcements were followed by an explosion of debate in the Omani blogosphere. Most bloggers openly condemn the arrests. Naturally, we've also made international headlines this week. A statement from Freedom House last week described the situation as ' a worrying indication of the deteriorating conditions for freedom of expression in Oman'.

Human Rights Watch called this flood of arrests 'A campaign of intimidation' and Amnesty International referred to it as a 'blatant attempt to stamp out freedom of speech'. Rather embarrassing for Oman, don't you think?

Do I believe it's okay to post offensive content online? No. Do I think the heavy handed approach by authorities is going to work? Not really. So what's next? Are they going to pull a Syria on us and block social media platforms altogether? You can't silence people. Not after last year.

I care deeply for my country and its stability. I also believe in the validity of human rights. In the end, freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. If the government chooses to ignore that in order to maintain stability within Oman, fine; just educate us first about the law and about our rights. A little transparency goes a long way!


  1. I wonder how you dare to write such a article which is lower than my expectation for such writer like you!! I know it is sad to hear that some people are in jail, however it is also good to know that those people, who commit offenses against other people or against society by spreading rumors or insulting others, are arrested to implement the regulations set by our lovely country. Respecting others rights and society is a must that we all should seek. therefore, i found that you support those who didn't respect our society. I do not agree with your description of those as writers or bloggers because most of them are just normal users writing randomly just to mislead others and insult some other people.

    I could be much better for you if you had written an article like Nick Smith's in Muscat Daily.

  2. Freedom of speech

    Nick Smith

    Muscat Daily yesterday covered the story of a nine year old Scottish schoolgirl, who thought that her school dinners would make an interesting subject for others, so decided to write about them on her blog ‘NeverSeconds’.
    Martha Payne photographed the food and rated it for quality. Her local council banned her from taking pictures of the meals because it was concerned that Martha was misrepresenting the menu options which were on offer, and also that it was upsetting the catering staff who were becoming worried about their jobs.
    Millions of people then used the influence of Twitter to support Martha, and children from around the world sent pictures of meals from their schools as comparisons. The local council leader finally decided to withdraw the ban. The NeverSeconds site tells some of this story and has posted a comment that it will be back on-stream with photos from today.
    One of the most extraordinary things about this story is that Martha actually wrote many very complimentary comments about her school meals, some even received marks of 10/10, and the blog is well presented and factual. David Payne, Martha’s father, has described the ban as an ‘own goal’. It certainly appears to me that the local council involved need to get some help with their public relations activities.
    The other amazing aspect is that her blog has now raised over RO30,000 for a kitchen shelter charity in Malawi. A Mary’s Meals spokesman said, “We are extremely grateful for everything she has done to help us reach some of the hungriest children in the world. It means that enough money has now been raised to build a brand new kitchen shelter and feed all 1,963 pupils there for a whole
    The power of Twitter, with around 140mn tweeters now around the world, is immense. Celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Nick Nairn had supported Martha’s blog, and with their domestic and international followers, news reached all parts of the globe in minutes. Couple Twitter and Facebook, and the realisation is that nothing can be kept quiet for long.
    I have followed the news from and about our part of the world since I arrived in 2006. I have been on Twitter (@nicksmith21c) and Facebook now for a couple of years, and enjoy the ability that particularly Twitter gives me to get breaking news as it happens. Individual blog sites also complement more formal media publications like Muscat Daily.
    I have seen reports that there have been a number of arrests in Oman of people using the social media to voice their opinions. Whilst no one in this country wants to see unsuitable or inappropriate comments on such sites, or information being distributed which could harm national security, there is a balance to be struck. Change is taking place here, and in many circumstances people voicing responsible opinions can be healthy – just look at Martha’s story above. Freedom of speech and written comment, within the bounds of human decency and respect, are two of the most fundamental attributes of a civilised world.
    I hope that the proper, well thought out and valuable views of citizens in our society can be heard, to help to take Oman forward in the years to come.

  3. Thought-provoking, bold and vocal! the reason why you remain one of my favorite bloggers in Oman. Keep up the good work!

  4. Nice. In America you are free to write anything on blogs and we take it for granted. Keep telling the truth. You are not spreading gossip, you are basically begging for specific boundaries to assure you stay within laws. I bet many young girls dream of being like you.