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 Speech and 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, and authorities have prosecuted individuals for writing about the sultan in a way the government perceived to be negative.
In October 2015 the sultan issued a royal decree prohibiting “broadcasting or publishing any news or information or rumors targeting the prestige of the State’s authorities or aimed to weaken confidence in them.” This law grants the government broad powers to arrest citizens for vaguely defined infractions.
Press and Media Freedoms: Media did not operate freely. Authorities tolerated limited criticism in privately owned newspapers and magazines, although 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. Authorities arrested bloggers during the year. On August 10, the government closed the independent newspaper al-Zamanand detained its managing editor, Yousef al-Hajj, chief editor, Ibrahim al-Maamari, and journalist Zaher al-Abri after they published an article on July 26 detailing corruption in the Supreme Court. The centerpiece of the allegations was an interview with the deputy chief justice, corroborating the corruption allegations. The deputy chief justice was detained and held under house arrest by the Royal Oman Police, and was visited by the Oman Human Rights Commission (OHRC). International human rights organizations and the brother of one of the al-Zaman employees reported that at least one of the journalists had been subjected to solitary confinement. During the trial the court refused motions by the defense attorney, to include calling witnesses and a change of judge after the judge reportedly mocked the defendants. On September 21, the presiding judge sentenced al-Hajj and al-Maamari to three years’ imprisonment each. They also received 3,000 rials ($7,800) fines. The judge also sentenced al-Abri to one-year imprisonment, with a fine of 1,000 OMR ($2,600). Additionally, the judge ordered the indefinite closure of al-Zaman, and the journalists were released on bail.
The law criminalizes a wide variety of expression. Authorities required journalists to obtain a license to work; freelance journalists are ineligible for a license.
Violence and Harassment: In isolated instances authorities harassed journalists.
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. 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 (MERA) before importing any religious materials and submit a copy for the MERA 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. Most video-chat technologies, such as Skype, were blocked.
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.
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.
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.
The government censored publicly shown films, primarily for sexual content and nudity. The government restricted the ability of bands with three or more members to perform in public venues. Dancing in restaurants and entertainment venues without a permit also was forbidden by law.
In August the government closed the AMIDEAST Muscat office, which had prepared local students for education abroad. The office had also facilitated cultural exchange.
FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY
The law provides for limited freedom of assembly, but the government restricted this right. Government approval was necessary for all public gatherings of more than nine persons, although there was no clear process for obtaining approval for public demonstrations. 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 that 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. In all cases workers threatened to picket to protest company downsizing. These did not occur, however, because company leadership used incentives, like promises of job security and other material benefits, to persuade organizers to call off the strike. The threat alone of a strike or demonstration was sufficient to compel management to negotiate with the workers, resolving the underlying issue (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 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 not appropriate. 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 the Ministry of Social Development, which approves all associations’ bylaws and determines whether a group serves the interest of the country. The average 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 and the subject matter of the organization, as well its leadership and focus of the organization’s mission. The approval time was often longer when a group required significant help from the ministry to formalize its structure. Formal registration of nationality-based associations was limited to one association for each nationality. For example, the Indian Social Group had many different subcommittees based on language and geography.
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 organizations (NGOs) through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by diplomatic note. NGOs may not meet with foreign diplomatic missions and foreign organizations without prior approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The government robustly enforced this law, stopping most foreign funding of educational and public diplomacy programs pending a government-wide 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. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) occasionally visited the country but did not maintain an office or personnel in the country.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: During the year Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report, based primarily on interviews with 59 female domestic workers, claiming widespread abuse and exploitation of migrant domestic works in the country. The country has a large number of female migrant workers from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and in the report many of these workers described abuses that amounted to forced labor or trafficking. According to HRW, “female migrant domestic workers faced multiple forms of discrimination and arbitrary government policies: as domestic workers, they are excluded from equal labor law protections guaranteed to other workers; as women, regulations provide that they can be paid less than male domestic workers; and as migrants, their salaries are based on their national origin rather than their skills and experience.”
According to the report, 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 a few individuals for forced labor, but it was unclear whether any of those cases involved domestic workers.
There was a high number of reports of women trafficked into forced labor from the neighboring UAE, but there were only five sex trafficking prosecutions in 2015, and none reported on forced labor. Approximately one-quarter of the domestic workers HRW interviewed said that their employers physically or sexually abused them by shouting, threatening to kill them, or calling them insulting names.
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 an inordinate amount of control over these workers, according to HRW. Migrant workers cannot work for a new employer 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, reentry bans, or forcible return to the abusive employer.
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, travel bans–through confiscation of passports–were imposed on citizens involved in political activism.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
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 reportedly granted asylum and accepted displaced persons for resettlement during the year. 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.
Refoulement: The government generally did not provide protection to refugees from repatriation to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened. Tight control over the entry of foreigners effectively limited access to protection for refugees and asylum seekers. Authorities apprehended and deported hundreds of 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 Basic Services: Without an official sponsor, it was difficult for economic migrants to have access to 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.