Oman must not jail journalists over ‘insult’

Amnesty International has urged the Omani authorities to quash the conviction of two journalists and their source after an appeals court last week upheld a guilty verdict against all three on charges of “insulting” the country’s Minister of Justice.Azzamn newspaper journalist Yusef al-Haj and editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Maamary, as well as Justice Ministry employee Haroon al-Muqaibli, were sentenced to five months in prison last September in connection with an article that alleged corruption within the Ministry of Justice.On 31 December, an appeal court in the capital Muscat upheld the sentences, along with a court order that Azzamn be closed for one month.The charges stem from an article by Yusef al-Haj alleging that his source, Haroon al-Muqaibli, was the victim of corruption inside the Ministry of Justice. For five years Haroon al-Muqaibli was paid lower than his rank and was refused the correct wage despite his repeated complaints.  “Silencing Azzamn and jailing its staff for publishing information that is in the public interest will have a chilling effect on all journalists in Oman,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa. “These sentences must be quashed and the newspaper must be allowed to continue its work without fear of suspension.”According to the appeal court ruling, the sentences are to be suspended, although the details of the suspension are unclear. Yusef al-Haj today told Amnesty International that the defendants felt the suspended sentences were like a “sword over their necks”.“What happened in this case is a sign and indicator confirming that freedom of expression does not exist in the Sultanate (of Oman) and the continuation of the restriction of journalists and newspapers,” said Yusef al-Haj. “Whatever the ways and means that is exercised, it all ends up against freedom of the press and freedom of expression.”The three defendants intend to submit an appeal to Oman’s Supreme Court.“Jailing journalists and their source solely based on their reporting work would make them prisoners of conscience, and as such Amnesty International would call on the Omani authorities to release them immediately and without condition,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.On 28 December, Azzamn published an apology to the Minister of Justice, but after the guilty verdict was upheld, the newspaper published another statement expressing “shock” at the new court ruling. “The sentence is unfair and the newspaper’s apology does not mean that the case (of Haroon al-Muqaibli) was not true,” Yusef al-Haj told Amnesty International.Azzamn has called for an independent committee to look into the case as there is concern over the independence of court decisions when the case involves the Ministry of Justice. The Omani authorities continue to maintain strict restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly. Several bloggers and journalists have been targeted in recent years after criticizing the government, including some who have been detained.Oman was caught up in pro-reform protests in 2011, when thousands of demonstrators took to the streets demanding improved living conditions, an end to corruption and greater freedom of expression.In February and March 2011, Oman’s head of state, Sultan Qaboos, conceded to some demands, including creating more jobs, increasing unemployment benefits and sacking several ministers in his cabinet.