Reform and Freedom of Expression

The greatest achievement from the protests taking place all around the country, in my opinion, is the fact that people now feel that they can freely express themselves and say what is on their mind without fear of prosecution. The Basic Statute of the State has stipulated freedom of expression as a guaranteed right, yet the majority would not dare to practice that right due to their lack of awareness of the extent to which they can do so and cultural and societal barriers against publicly criticising other people and government officials. That is no longer the case as the current situations has proved that the government is willing to tolerate a great level of freedom of expression, especially as we now see people at the “Speaker’s Corner” of the Shura Council, the reports on TV and newspapers, and the hundreds of videos on YouTube showing Omani people criticising publicly government officials and telling corruption stories of former Ministers.
At the same time as this great step for freedom of expression in Oman, surprisingly, and for the first time, an Arabic Omani blog was blocked from being access in Oman presumably because of some leaked documents that were published on that blog. The blog of Ammar Al Maamari has always been one of the most controversial Omani blogs, as he has again and again published confidential documents suggesting the corruption of certain government officials. This time Ammar got his hands on a sound recording of the former Minister of Interior threatening in to use brutal force to remove the protestors from Sohar Roundabout; a number of very old documents showing that a formal order was made by the government to tap the phone calls of a Omani political activist, and some medical records of the victims of the incident of police clash at Sohar Roundabout.

The sound recording of the former Minister of Interior was not really confidential and all those invited to that meeting were supposed to inform the public that force will be used if the protestors do not leave the roundabout – that was the whole point of the meeting. The Minister of Interior was also removed from his position and a now Minister has been appointed, so there really isn’t anything to worry about relating to this issue. The second set of documents regarding the order to tap phone calls of the activist is a really old matter and it is not relevant to anything happening right now. What I am more concerned about is the last set of documents relating to the medical records of those injured at the roundabout. In reality, these documents did not contribute to the uncovering of any major government secret – the government made a statement that one person was killed and the leaked medical records say that.

I do not support the illegal disclosure of confidential documents, especially those that relate to private confidential matters of individuals, especially as this leak seems to be made for the sake of getting some attention and causing more chaos, yet I still believe that it is wrong to block someone’s website. In this situation it might have been difficult for the authorities to take legal action against the blogger because he is not based in Oman, but that does not really make blocking the website justified because even if you block it the content will just be republished elsewhere – we still read what he posted even after the blog was blocked. Censorship should never be an option because it just does not work.

I do not know if the decision to block this website was made by a low-level officer or someone really senior, but as the Cabinet of Ministers has gone through a major restructure last week, I do hope that the government reconsiders its position in relation to internet censorship so that it goes in line with the new expectation in society to be able to freely express yourselves and share your point of view with everyone else.

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