Well here we are, the "Arab Spring" a few months on, and Oman has a new cause celebre, involving basic principles of "freedom", international NGOs, gleeful finger pointing from the neighbouring country's press, and a lot of hand-wringing all round. Even the celebrated "Muscat Confidential" and the scion of Salalah, "Dhofari Gucci", have been on the case. A newspaper has been prosecuted for writing something about a Ministry. Now don't get me wrong, I think being able to say what you think is pretty important (hell, read down this website for a few hours!), but on this issue, I'm going to take the traditional Middle Eastern view of this online human rights convention: I'm citing a reservation.
A long time ago, in a land far, far away...well, about fifteen years ago in a neighbouring country called the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, their lived two funny men. They made a television programme called "Tash ma Tash" (roughly translated...."Sh*t Happens"). It was a success, a huge success. Not because the humour was original or sophisticated, not even because there was no other comedy around. No. It was because these two talented men tapped into something people were really ready to watch: satire of real life in Saudi Arabia. As a resident there at that time, I too enjoyed it very much.
In (I think) 1997, the programme became a huge sensation during Ramadhan, where it seemed the whole country would come to a standstill after iftar as households - men, women and children, old and young, sat down to watch it together. One episode at that time showed the two anti-heroes running around trying to get a "licence" (yes remember those days?) for a mobile phone contract. They were met by bureaucracy, rudeness, obstructive staff etc. And there was no doubt about whom they were talking: pre-privatisation telecomms in KSA were all in the bailiwick of the Ministry of Telecommunications. For the first time on Saudi-accessible TV, people were openly mocking poor services from a Saudi government organisation. The reaction was like an earthquake: the Minister was writing in the newspapers immediately, explaining the ministry's plans to improve things, defending his staff, laying out commitments to better services, etc. The media had acted, in this case through comedy, as a voice of the people, and been heard.
Years later, newspapers in Saudi Arabia, talk shows on satellite TV channels and yes, "Tash ma Tash" still, are all talking about social issues, government services and even (carefully) the religious establishment. The Saudi press, far from being some reactionary stereotype, has evolved into one of the most dynamic media forces in the region. And the strange thing is, those men who first satirised their government's telecommunications services, did so with impunity.
So, back to Oman. I don't know the facts of the case, I don't even know what was said, as like most people (bar the immediate families and friends of the owners and employees, possibly only under duress), I didn't read "Az-Zaman". But again like most people, I have nevertheless read a lot about the prosecution of its editor, a certain journalist, and the suspension of its licence to operate. It's fair to ask, then, why in mean old Saudi Arabia it's OK to criticise the Ministry of Phones, but in cuddly lovely Oman it's not OK to criticise the Ministry of Right and Wrong? The answer is pretty simple I think, hence my reservation on this whole allergic reaction to the prosecutions at "Az-Zaman". The answer is that never, in any episode of "Tash ma Tash", never in any insightful newspaper editorial, did anyone expect to be able to insult or accuse an individual.
Oman shares the depressing distinction, at least in my opinion, of having the worst media in the GCC. Not just in quality, but (along, I hasten to add, with the UAE), in domestic coverage. With these recent prosecutions, it's easy to say that it's all because of censorship. I would disagree - I think the failings of the domestic print media are largely based on self-fulfilling assumptions about censorship; a kind of self-censorship that prevents any serious local commentary or reporting. Those that show a bit more spirit are doing well: take, for example, "The Week", and "Muscat Daily" - publications from the same stable that have openly reported on policy and service failings e.g. in the wake of Cyclone Gonu. Did the owner get prosecuted for pointing out problems? No, of course not. The "Az-Zaman" case, then, is for another reason - we're back to individuals.
You'd have to be pretty ignorant to live in Oman for any length of time and not be aware that the insulting people is a criminal offence. Like it or not, flipping someone the finger or calling them names, can get you a fine and up to three months in prison. It's not socially acceptable. It's not culturally acceptable. And, reflecting the sensibilities of its people as a legal system should, it's not acceptable in law. You can be mean to someone. You can be selfish or even ill-mannered. There is a limit to how much the law can prescribe human interaction, and rightly so. But nevertheless, in this country the law draws a very clear line: insult someone directly and you have crossed it.
These prosecutions are not under that law (ihanat karaama -"offence to dignity") as far as I know, but the point is that in a legal system where such a crime exists, it is not hard to predict that rules on libel are also a matter of criminal proscription. To put it simply, in a place where you can't call Johnny an a-hole, writing "Johnny is a thief" in your newspaper is also (pretty obviously) going to be unacceptable. I don't know what "Az-Zaman" wrote about the Minister of Justice, his Undersecretary, or what may be true or false in their writing. But what I do know is that the journalists involved must be extremely naive to think that taking an accusation of criminality from a disgruntled official and printing it as fact, could possibly go without a reaction.
"Az-Zaman" is a tiny paper. Perhaps they are trying to make a name for themselves (as some have in other countries) by writing tabloid rumours or even "investigative journalism" to capture the public imagination. But publishing accusations in the newspapers is ugly, and the reaction pretty predictable. Perhaps also the prosecutions of these people are totally counter-productive, giving a big voice to a small paper by making a rumour into a scandal. It seems like a heavy-handed way of going about things, but at least it sends a reminder to others, however painful: if you think a crime has been committed, give your evidence to someone whose job it is to solve crimes.
I have spent a lot of my life dealing with newspapers and the like - giving interviews, advising other people on how to deal with them, or even writing for the papers myself. In light of that, I'm extremely critical of the poor quality of both print and broadcast media in Oman. But at the same time, there are some things I wouldn't change here. In some countries where reporting rumours and accusations against individuals is easier to get away with, it's become a whole media industry culture. Even blanket coverage of trials, hammering home the message to an audience or readership that so-and-so is in court - an image that taints a name forever even if he or she is acquitted. Trial by media is something I could never wish to see in Oman.
It's no secret that all sorts of different government organisations look at what goes on in the media, or even through private online expressions like this website. Yet I don't feel constrained in what I write, other than by my own morality! I would like to think that the reason this humble portal has a bunch of people who don't know me at all following it, is that I write sometimes about subjects in which people are interested. Newspapers that do the same, I think, get more readers. But if I were to start accusing this person and that person of criminal activity because it was "what I'd heard", then sooner or later I would expect repercussions. I don't have a problem with that. I don't even feel that it's a restriction. I just feel that it would be wrong to accuse someone based on gossip, when if I had any actual evidence I know where it should go.
So, although I do feel sorry for anyone who's faced with prosecution or with losing their livelihood, I'm not convinced that this is a serious issue of human rights or freedom of speech. I personally think that freedom from personal slander or libel is pretty important too. Maybe these journalists will produce proof for their accusations and be acquitted in which case well done. Either way I suspect they will be shown some clemency. But the thing is, even if we all acknowledge that there have been corruption cases or whatever in government organisations before, we also need to respect the fact that this is a country where it's possible for a minister or other bigshot to go to jail occasionally. It's no excuse to say "oh, well they wouldn't do anything so we're taking it into our own hands". It has happened. And either way, how much store do you set by "they say that..."? Is it enough to ruin someone's reputation? Wouldn't you feel awful if it turned out to be untrue? Ask yourself this: would you expect to be accused through a newspaper, rather than reported to the authorities?
I won't pre-judge "Az-Zaman" either and suggest that they've set out to be dishonest. Maybe they are just on a quest for truth and justice, and good for them. But there are some rules in this society - not just about VIPs, ministers and big businessmen, but about anyone. You can't accuse people publicly of things that you just don't know. I'm actually glad that such limitations exist. I hope these cases get concluded quickly without too much damage and some lessons learned instead. And my advice to "Az-Zaman" would be that if they want to make a name for themselves, don't try to use these questionable short-cuts. It's perfectly possible to write about problems, issues, and even government policies. Just do it without abusing the human rights of other individuals. And as others have shown, that is what makes a newspaper better, and it's a much more sustainable way to gain respect and a bigger readership.
P.S. No I don't know the Minister of Justice, nor the other guy, nor anyone at the paper or in the least bit associated with this case, and no I'm not on anyone's payroll either. Just in case you were wondering. Although I'm prepared to be, if you're offering - at least while I'm waiting for the arms dealers or drug barons to come through...