a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The law provides for limited freedom of expression for members of the press and other media, but authorities did not always respect these rights. Journalists, high profile figures, and writers reportedly exercised self-censorship.
Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits criticism of the sultan in any form or medium, as well as any “provocative propaganda to undermine the prestige of the state,” electronic communication that “might prejudice the public order or religious values,” and “defamation of character.” It is illegal to insult any public official or private citizen. Authorities prosecuted individuals for writing on the sultan in a way the government perceived to be negative. International human rights organizations expressed concern that the penal code contains vaguely defined articles that the security services could use to target activists and further restrict freedom of expression, including online.
In February a court charged an individual with a misdemeanor and sentenced him to two months’ imprisonment and a fine of 300 rials ($780) for the “indecent act” of showing contempt for the national currency, local press reported. According to the report, the man posted a video to social media in which he was dancing while wearing a necklace of currency bills.
On August 13, security forces arrested internet activist Khamis al-Hatali after he published a video on his Twitter account where he addressed Sultan Haitham, saying, “We are the nation talking…You are an unjust person.” No update was available.
There were no updates available on the status of Musallam al-Ma’ashani’s indefinitely delayed trial related to his arrest in 2019 at the Sarfait border crossing for printing a book documenting tribal activities in Dhofar.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: 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 traditional and social media (especially on Twitter), the government and privately owned radio and television stations did not generally broadcast political material criticizing the government. Authorities required journalists to obtain a license to work; freelance journalists were ineligible for a license.
Violence and Harassment: Some journalists reported harassment by high-level government officials for printing stories perceived as critical of their 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 including 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. There was 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.
Authorities blocked the import without the necessary permit of certain publications, for example, religious texts. Importing pornography also was blocked. Shipping companies claimed customs officials sometimes confiscated these materials. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), authorities censored 51 literary works from the 2020 Muscat International Book Fair, which was cancelled in 2021 due to COVID-19.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is a criminal offense, which allows for up to one year’s imprisonment.
National Security: The government prohibited publication of any material that “undermines the prestige of the state.”
The law restricts free speech exercised via the internet, and the government enforced these restrictions. The law allows authorities to prosecute individuals for any message that “violates public order and morals” sent via any medium. 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. Authorities could apply the law against bloggers and social media users who insult the sultan. Authorities placed individuals who abused social media in custody for up to two weeks and provided them with “advice and guidance,” according to the OHRC.
In March the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) blocked domestic access to the drop-in audio chat platform Clubhouse, according to social media and local press outlet that confirmed the block with TRA. Some social media users, media outlets, and human rights observers described the block as censorship and inconsistent with the principle of freedom of expression.
In March a court sentenced two citizens to one year in prison and a fine of 500 rials ($1,300) and confiscated their cell phones for using information technology to violate public morals, local press reported. According to the report, the men posted video clips to social media that contained indecent signs, phrases, and actions. No additional details were available.
On July 23, security forces arrested Internet activists Ghaith al-Shibli, Maryam al-Nuaimi, and Abdullah Hassan, according to GCHR and social media reports (see section 2.d.).
According to HRW and Amnesty International, activist and blogger Awadh al-Sawafi was arrested in June for tweets critical of government institutions. On June 16, he was sentenced to a suspended one-year prison sentence and banned from using social media for one year for violating the Cyber Crime Law by “publishing information harming public order.” On June 10, the Court of First Instance in Muscat sentenced former Shura Council member Salem al-Awfi and journalist Adel al-Kasbi each to one year in prison for “using information technology to spread harm to public order” under the Cyber Crime Law. Both of their charges relate to posts that criticized government figures and the Shura Council.
Some informal civil society and advocacy organizations also were targeted for social media posts, according to HRW. Notably, the women behind the “Nasawiyat Omaniyat” (Omani Feminists) Twitter account were reportedly summoned for questioning by authorities and forced to suspend their activity on the account, seemingly in retaliation for their work and public advocacy on women’s rights.
Authorities monitored the activities of telecommunications service providers and obliged them to block access to numerous websites considered pornographic, or culturally or politically sensitive. Authorities sometimes blocked blogs as well as most VoIP technologies.
Social media users exercised self-censorship and shared 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 receive 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, and placed restrictions on performances in public venues. The law also forbids dancing in restaurants and entertainment venues without a permit.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. Human rights organizations expressed concern that overly broad provisions in the penal code could further restrict the work of human rights activists and limit freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The law provides for limited freedom of assembly, but the government restricted this right. Gatherings of 10 or more persons in a public place are unlawful if they “endangered the public security or order” or “influenced the function of authorities.”
During a series of nationwide demonstrations against unemployment in May, the ROP reportedly arrested individuals engaged in peaceful protest, according to some social media users and human rights observers. The ROP arrested “dozens” of protesters, most of whom the authorities released after they signed pledges to refrain from participating in future demonstrations, GCHR said in June. According to this organization, authorities released five peaceful protestors in July after charging them with participating in a gathering of more than 10 persons without a permit and detaining them for several weeks. Human rights defender Ibrahim al-Balushi was among those reportedly arrested. He went on a hunger strike while in solitary confinement and was released on June 2, according to GCHR.
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.
The government limited freedom of association by prohibiting associations whose activities it deemed “inimical to the social order” or otherwise inappropriate. Citizens joining groups deemed “harmful to national interests” could be subject to revocation of citizenship.
Associations must register with their corresponding ministries, which must approve all associations’ bylaws and have the power to 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. The law limits formal registration of nationality-based associations to one association for each nationality and restricts activities of such associations. The government sometimes denied permission for associations to form.
The law forbids associations from conducting any kind of fundraising without government approval, including for charitable causes. Individuals convicted of accepting unlawful funding for an association may receive up to one year in jail. 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.
d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country
The law provides for freedom of internal movement and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Citizens could generally travel freely outside the country, although this right is not codified; however, there were reports that migrant workers were not always able to depart the country freely.
In-country Movement: There are no official government restrictions on internal travel for any citizen. The government must approve on a case-by-case basis official travel by foreign diplomats to the Dhofar and Musandam regions. There were reports many foreign domestic workers had their passports confiscated by employers, who sponsor the foreign workers, even though the law prohibited this practice.
Foreign Travel: The government reported that expatriate workers could depart the country without permission at any time, but a worker’s ability to do so was contingent on physically possessing a passport and not facing any charges, including “absconding” charges. Some potential human trafficking victims who experienced passport confiscation or were subject to spurious charges filed by their employers may have been unable to leave the country freely.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government generally did not allow asylum seekers to remain in the country. Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) personnel occasionally visited the country but did not maintain an office locally. The Committee for International Humanitarian Law considers matters of refugees and displaced persons, according to the OHRC.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refuge for displaced persons, and the government has established a system for providing protection. The ROP’s system for granting asylum and resettlement was not transparent, and the law does not specify a timeframe in which the ROP must adjudicate an asylum application. It was policy not to recognize refugees from conflict zones such as Yemen, although Yemenis travel to Oman regularly, and the government provided temporary medical care to certain Yemeni citizens. In practice there were no substantive legal protections for asylum seekers in the country.
Refoulement: The government did not provide comprehensive protection to asylum seekers from involuntary returns to countries where their lives or freedom could be threatened, subjecting them to the possibility of refoulement. Tight control over the entry of foreigners effectively limited access to protection for asylum seekers.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The country has many female migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Uganda employed as domestic workers. Nongovernmental organizations based outside the country, international media reports, and embassies of labor-sending countries alleged that domestic workers faced maltreatment, to include physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. The law criminalizes slavery and trafficking, and the government has made efforts to combat trafficking. Labor violations are punishable under the labor law. Domestic workers are excluded, however, from the labor law’s protections and instead are covered by a 2004 Ministerial Decision, which does not provide effective rights protections or adequate complaint mechanisms for this population. In 2020 courts convicted two individuals for human trafficking crimes.
Temporary Protection: The government provided emergency medical care to certain Yemeni citizens who demonstrated they could not receive adequate care in Yemen. These Yemenis and one accompanying family member per patient were offered temporary resident status in Oman during the treatment period on an ad hoc basis.