(New York) – An Omani appeals court should immediately revoke a lower court’s sentences in a press freedom case, Human Rights Watch said today. The court should drop all charges against a journalist, editor, and civil servant allegedly for insulting and defaming the justice minister and his deputy in a May 14 article. The charges appear to violate international standards of freedom of expression, including the right to criticize government ministers.
The charges were brought against journalist Yousef al-Haj; his editor, Ibrahim al-Ma’mari; and a civil servant, Haroun al-Mukbeeli, who allegedly provided information for the article. The government should also cease all related threats against al-Haj and al-Ma’mari’s newspaper, Azzamn, one of the few independent newspapers in the Sultanate, Human Rights Watch said.
“Journalists should be permitted to report freely about the government without fear of criminal charges and retribution,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Omani authorities shouldn’t use the courts to silence independent publications critical of the government.”
On September 21, 2011, a judge of the Primary Court of al-Khuwayr sentenced al-Haj and al-Ma’mari to five months in prison each on charges of “defaming” and “insulting the dignity” of the minister of justice and his deputy. The judge also ordered the newspaper to shut down for a month.
The charges stem from an article al-Haj wrote in Azzamn on May 14 alleging that the justice minister and his deputy refused to grant a salary and grade increase to al-Mukeebli, a longtime civil servant. The judge also sentenced al-Mukeebli to five months in prison on the same charges, presumably for speaking with al-Haj about his case.
Al-Hajtold Human Rights Watch that he and his editor posted bail of 200 Omani Riyals (US$520) shortly after the verdict and would be free while they appeal the decision; the first hearing of the court of appeal is set for October 15. The authorities will also allow the newspaper to operate during this period.
Al-Haj said he fears that these charges were an attempt to silence Azzamn and to punish him personally for his participation in widely publicized pro-reform sit-ins by civil society activists in front of the Shura Council building in central Muscat from March to June 2011.
“Using defamation charges to shield public officials from criticism is a clear violation of the right to free expression,” said Stork. “Oman should respect the right of journalists and newspapers to operate freely and expose alleged corruption.”
Freedom of expression is guaranteed under international human rights law. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) holds that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression... to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.” While Oman is not a party to the ICCPR, the covenant is an authoritative source and guideline reflecting international best practice. Accepted international standards only allow press restrictions in extremely specific circumstances, such as cases of slander or libel against private individuals or speech that threatens national security. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has said that “in circumstances of public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions, the value placed by the Covenant upon uninhibited expression is particularly high.”