(Beirut, August 14, 2016) – Omani authorities ordered the immediate closure of the Azamnnewspaper and arrested its deputy editor on August 9, 2016, Human Rights Watch said today. Yousef al-Haj, the Azamn deputy editor, is the third Azamn journalist arrested since July 28, over the publication of articles accusing senior judicial officials of corruption.
Following the publication of an article in Azamn alleging that the chairman of the Omani Supreme Court had interfered in a verdict, Omani authorities arrested Ibrahim al-Ma’mari, the editor-in-chief, on July 28, and Zaher al-Abri, who oversees the newspaper’s local coverage, on August 3.
“Hauling journalists off to prison for alleging authorities’ potential abuse of power completely undermines Oman’s claims to respect free expression,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Omani authorities should rescind the government closure of Azamnnewspaper, and either release the three Azamn journalists or promptly bring recognizable criminal charges against them, and guarantee them a fair trial.”
On August 9, Azamn published an interview with Ali bin Salem al-No’mani, the vice president of the Omani Supreme Court. Al-No’mani supported the allegations in the earlier article concerning the undermining of the judiciary’s independence.
Al-No’mani was also quoted as saying that he regretted the crackdown on Omani journalists, including al-Ma’mari, saying “He [al-Ma’mari] spoke honestly and sincerely in his publication, and now as an administrator in the judiciary I do not know his whereabouts.”
Hours after the publication of this interview, the Information Ministry announced the immediate closure of Azamn. Oman’s Internal Security Service arrested al-Haj at his home the same day. He is currently believed to be held at a military hospital after allegedly suffering a stroke during his arrest, a source told Human Rights Watch on August 10. On August 6, al-Haj had posted onFacebook that he possessed official documents implicating Supreme Court Chairman Ishaq al-Busaidi in violations of Oman’s laws and asking for protection.
The state-run Oman News Agency published a statement from Omani authorities about the Azamnreport, saying: “The report not only ignored the basics of freedom of expression, but it also degraded it by utilizing it in such a manner that harms one of the pillars of the state.” It said that the judiciary “should be respected rather than targeted with deliberate accusations meant to shake confidence, as was intended by the [Azamn] newspaper in its recent series of articles and interviews.” The statement added that the government had taken legal measures to protect the judiciary, “but without excess or exaggeration.”
These restrictions appear to violate international standards of freedom of expression, including the right to criticize government officials. Shutting down an entire newspaper after it criticizes the authorities appears as a grossly disproportionate measure, Human Rights Watch said.
Journalists and government critics in Oman have frequently faced harassment and detention in previous crackdowns. In 2011, a court issued a verdict ordering Azamn to shut down its activities for a month, and sentenced al-Ma’mari and al-Haj to five-month suspended jail sentences for insulting the justice minister and other officials.
“Closing a paper is only permitted in grave circumstances and certainly is not justified to shield public officials from criticism,” Stork said.