Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law provides for limited freedom of speech and press, but authorities did not always respect these rights. Journalists and writers exercised self-censorship.
Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits criticism of the sultan in any form or medium, as well as any “material that leads to public discord, violates the security of the state, or abuses a person’s dignity or his rights;” “messages of any form that violate public order and morals or are harmful to a person’s safety;” and “defamation of character.” Therefore, it is illegal to insult any public official or private citizen. Authorities have prosecuted individuals for writing about the sultan in a way the government perceived to be negative.
Press and Media Freedom: Media did not operate freely. Authorities tolerated limited criticism in privately owned newspapers and magazines; however, editorials generally were consistent with the government’s views. Although mainstream social debate occurred in media, the government and privately owned radio and television stations did not generally broadcast political material criticizing the government.
In October the Supreme Court upheld previous court rulings and permanently shut down al-Zaman, an independent newspaper. In September 2016 a court had temporarily shut down the publication after it published an article detailing alleged corruption in the Supreme Court. The court sentenced the managing editor, Yousef al-Hajj to one year in prison and chief editor Ibrahim al-Maamari to six months. Journalist Zaher al-Abri was acquitted on appeal. Al-Maamari was released in April, and al-Hajj was released in October.
Authorities required journalists to obtain a license to work; freelance journalists were ineligible for a license.
Violence and Harassment: Some journalists reported near-daily harassment by high-level government officials for printing stories perceived as critical of their particular ministries.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Headlines in both public and private media print outlets were subject to an official, nontransparent review and approval process before publication. Journalists and writers exercised self-censorship. The law permits the Ministry of Information to review all media products and books produced within or imported into the country. The ministry occasionally prohibited or censored material from domestic and imported publications viewed as politically, culturally, or sexually offensive. In May a court sentenced a local author to three years in prison for “insulting the Sultan,” and “undermining the status of the country” in books published in 2014 and 2016 on the country’s history. Some books were not permitted in the country. There is only one major publishing house in the country, and publication of books remained limited. The government required religious groups to notify the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs before importing any religious materials and submit a copy for the ministry’s files.
Libel/Slander Laws: The government used libel laws and national security concerns as grounds to suppress criticism of government figures and politically objectionable views. Libel is a criminal offense, which allows for a heavy fine and prison sentence.
National Security: The government prohibited publication of any material that “violates the security of the state.”
The law restricts free speech exercised via the internet, and the government enforces the restrictions. The government’s national telecommunications company and private service providers make internet access available for a fee to citizens and foreign residents. Internet access is available via schools, workplaces, wireless networks at coffee shops, and other venues, especially in urban areas.
Authorities monitored the activities of telecommunications service providers and obliged them to block access to numerous websites considered pornographic, or culturally or politically sensitive. The criteria for blocking access to internet sites were not transparent or consistent. Authorities sometimes blocked blogs as well as most video and audio chat technologies, such as Skype.
The Law to Counter Information Technology Crimes allows authorities to prosecute individuals for any message sent via any medium that “violates public order and morals.” The law details crimes that take place on the internet that “might prejudice public order or religious values” and specifies a penalty of between one month and a year in prison and fines of not less than 1,000 rials ($2,600). Authorities also applied the law against bloggers and social media users who insult the sultan.
The government placed warnings on websites informing users that criticism of the sultan or personal criticism of government officials would be censored and could lead to police questioning, effectively increasing self-censorship. During times of regional turmoil, the government also shared posters in social media encouraging users to report others who sought to disturb the peace.
Website administrators or moderators were cautious concerning content and were reportedly quick to delete potentially offensive material in chat rooms, on social networking fora, and on blog postings. Some website administrators posted warnings exhorting users to follow local laws and regulations.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 70 percent of individuals used the internet in 2016.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Academics largely practiced self-censorship. Colleges and universities were required to have permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Higher Education before meeting with foreign diplomatic missions or accepting money for programs or speakers. In June a Western diplomatic mission sought permission to host a college fair for students but was told by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that interaction with students was forbidden. In October the Ministry allowed foreign diplomatic missions to participate in a government-hosted college fair.
The government censored publicly shown films, primarily for sexual content and nudity, and placed restrictions on performances in public venues. Dancing in restaurants and entertainment venues without a permit also was forbidden by law.
In August 2016 the government closed the AMIDEAST Muscat office, which had prepared local students for education abroad. The office had also facilitated cultural exchange.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The law provides for limited freedom of assembly, but the government restricted this right. Government approval more than one month in advance was necessary for all public gatherings of more than nine persons, although the mechanism to obtain approval for public demonstrations was unclear. Authorities enforced this requirement sporadically. A 2014 report from the UN special rapporteur on rights to freedom of peaceful assembly expressed concern with government attempts to limit assembly and association rights and stated individuals seeking reform were “afraid to speak their minds, afraid to speak on the telephone, afraid to meet.”
Private-sector employees in the energy and industrial manufacturing sectors threatened strikes in isolated cases. However, company leadership used incentives like promises of job security and other material benefits to persuade organizers to call off strikes (see section 7.a.).
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The law provides for freedom of association for undefined “legitimate objectives and in a proper manner.” Examples of such associations include registered labor unions and social groups for foreign nationalities, such as the Indian Social Group. The Council of Ministers limited freedom of association in practice by prohibiting associations whose activities it deemed “inimical to the social order” or otherwise inappropriate. A royal decree in 2014 promulgated a new nationality law that stipulates citizens joining groups deemed harmful to national interests could be subject to revocation of citizenship.
Associations must register with their corresponding ministries, which approve all associations’ bylaws and determine whether a group serves the interest of the country. The time required to register an association ranged from two months to two years. Approval time varied based on the level of preparedness of the applying organization, the subject matter of the organization, its leadership, and the organization’s mission. Formal registration of nationality-based associations was limited to one association for each nationality.
Associations are forbidden from receiving funding from international groups or foreign governments without government approval. Individuals convicted of accepting foreign funding for an association may receive up to six months in jail and a fine of 500 rials ($1,300). Foreign diplomatic missions are required to request meetings with nongovernmental associations through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by diplomatic note. Associations may not meet with foreign diplomatic missions and foreign organizations without prior approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The government enforced this law, and all foreign-funded educational and public diplomacy programs required prior government review.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of movement within the country and repatriation and the government generally respected these rights. Citizens could generally travel freely outside the country, although that right is not codified. Citizens related to citizens living abroad who criticized the government reportedly were told not to leave the country. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) occasionally visited the country but did not maintain an office or personnel locally.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Oman has a large number of female migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, many of whom are employed as domestic workers. NGOs based outside of Oman, such as Human Rights Watch, and embassies of labor-sending countries allege that domestic workers face discrimination, to include physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. The country criminalizes slavery and trafficking, but enforcement is weak. Although forced labor is punished under the country’s labor law, domestic workers are excluded from that law’s protections. Authorities prosecuted six individuals for forced labor, but it was unclear whether any of those cases involved domestic workers.
The government did not allow refugees to remain in the country. Refugees escaping conflict areas, such as Yemen, were allowed to remain in a border camp for a few days and then returned to their country of citizenship, where they could face persecution or torture. In the case of Syrians fleeing conflict in Yemen, the government allowed them to choose a third country as a destination.
In-country Movement: There are no official government restrictions on internal travel for any citizen. The government must approve official travel by foreign diplomats to the Dhofar and Musandam regions. There were reports of many migrant domestic workers having their passports confiscated by employers, who sponsor the foreign workers.
Employers have a great amount of control over these workers. The country’s visa-sponsorship system (kafala) ties migrant workers to their employers and prevents them from changing jobs without their sponsor’s consent. Migrant workers cannot work for a new employer in Oman within a two-year period without the permission of their current employer, even if they complete their contract and the current employer is abusive. Employers can have a worker’s visa canceled arbitrarily. Workers who leave their jobs without the consent of their employer can be punished with fines, deportation, and/or reentry bans.
Foreign Travel: Some foreigners must obtain an exit visa from their employer prior to leaving the country. Exit visas may be denied when there is a dispute over payment or work remaining, leaving the foreign citizen in country with recourse only through local courts. Courts provided recourse to workers denied exit visas, but the process was opaque. In a few cases in 2016, travel bans–through confiscation of passports–were imposed on citizens involved in political activism.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: The government did not provide protection to refugees from involuntary returns to countries where their lives or freedom could be threatened. Tight control over the entry of foreigners effectively limited access to protection for refugees and asylum seekers. Authorities apprehended and deported presumed economic migrants from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea who sought to enter the country illegally by land and sea from the south. Afghans and Pakistanis generally came to the country by boat via Iran. Authorities generally detained these persons in centers in Salalah or the northern port city of Sohar, where they were held an average of one month before deportation to their countries of origin.
Access to Asylum: The laws provide for the granting of asylum or refuge for internally displaced persons, and the government has established a system for providing protection. The ROP’s system for granting asylum and resettlement is not transparent, and the law does not specify a timeframe in which the ROP must adjudicate an asylum application. It is current policy not to recognize refugees from conflict zones, such as Yemen, although temporary medical care to certain Yemeni citizens was provided by the government.
Access to Basic Services: Without an official sponsor, it was difficult for economic migrants to access basic services, such as health care. Many applied to their embassies for repatriation. Some asylum seekers developed strong relationships within their community that informally provided for them while they sought new employment.