Freedom of Expression and the Telecommunications Law

A couple of weeks ago the status of human rights in Oman was examined at the Universal Periodic Review of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the international community praised the efforts Oman has made for the continuous development of the country, but also pointed out that a lot can be done to help improve a number of human rights such as the existence of the capital punishment in Oman, the treatment of foreign labour, the formation of civil associations, and the freedom of expression. Oman stated that it will consider some of the recommendations made at the review and that it will report any actions it will take in regard to these recommendations.
Article 29 of the Basic Statute of the State of Oman guarantees the freedom of expression within the limits of the law. There is no such thing as an absolute freedom of expression because our right to freely express ourselves should not infringe on the rights of other people not to be insulted or defamed. The problem in Oman is that the scope of the offence of defamation is not clearly defined and the Criminal Law does not provide any helpful defences to protect those who have a legitimate reason to criticise others. In addition to this, the Telecommunication Law holds owners of websites strictly liable for comments made by other people on their website regardless of whether or not the owner of the website had a chance to look at that comment or whether or not the owner had any reason to think that this comment would be offensive to others.

The current recognition of freedom of expression by the Basic Statute of the State is not very helpful because we do not know its actual scope in real life, the law can certainly benefit from a revision that clearly defines what defamation means. Defamation should be considered as such only when someone makes an untrue statement about someone else that lowers the opinion of that person in the mind of other people. If a statement is true then there shall be no reason why someone should be punished for making that statement, even if that statement harms the reputation of a person. The concept of defamation should distinguish between expressions made as a statement of fact and expressions of opinion. Everyone should have the right to state his opinion regardless of whether people liked that opinion or not, but no one should be able to claim something as a fact when it is not.

What is even vaguer than the concept of defamation in the Criminal Law, is the concept of “a message contrary to public order and moral” specified in Article 61(4) of the Telecommunication Law and for which a webmaster can be held liable even if posted by other people on his website. The law should specify exactly what sort of messages would be offensive (defamation of people, insulting a religion, spreading racial hatred, etc) and then provide a workable mechanism for webmasters to have a defence against that defence in the situations where the webmaster did not have any reason to think that such a message was offensive or did not have any reasonable opportunity to remove the offensive content once he knew that the message will be considered as legally offensive.

The great thing about the Universal Periodic Review of the UN’s Office of High Commissioner of Human Rights is that it puts governments under the spot and forces them to at least consider ways by which they can improve human rights in their countries. It will be interesting to see how Oman officially responds to these recommendations, especially as one recommendation specifically suggested that Oman reviews its Telecommunications Law to help empower people to practise their right for the freedom of expression.

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.