Reporters Without Borders deplores a Muscat appeal court’s decision on 31 December to uphold five-month jail sentences for Yousef Al-Haj, a journalist with the Muscat-based daily Al-Zaman, Ibrahim Al-Mo’amari, his editor, and justice ministry employee Haroun Saeed in a defamation case brought by justice minister Mohamed Al-Hanai and his under-secretary.
The appeal court also confirmed an order closing the newspaper for a month. The sentences were originally imposed on 21 September.
“We can only reiterate our disappointment that the sentences handed down by the lower court have been confirmed on appeal,” Reporters Without Borders said, urging the authorities to reverse this decision. “This ruling is a clear warning to journalists in the sultanate who dare to cover corruption within the state apparatus.”
The case was prompted by a 14 May article that quoted Saeed’s allegations of growing corruption within the ministry and favouritism in appointments and promotions.
In an 11 August letter to Sultan Qaboos, Oman’s head of state, on the eve of the original trial, Reporters Without Borders wrote: “The proceedings are out of all proportion to the gravity of the offence and we call for their immediate withdrawal.”
21.09.2011 - Convictions in Muscat
Reporters Without Borders condemns the five-month jail sentences that a Muscat court passed today on Yousef Al-Haj, a journalist with the Muscat-based daily Al-Zaman, and Ibrahim Al-Mo’amari, his editor, for allegedly defaming justice minister Mohamed Al-Hanai in an article published on 14 May. The judge also ordered the newspaper closed for a month.
Reporters Without Borders expressed its concern about the trial in a letter to Sultan Qaboos, Oman’s head of state, on 11 August, three days before it began. “The proceedings are out of all proportion to the gravity of the offence and we call for their immediate withdrawal,” the letter said.
The lawyer defending the two journalists said they would appeal. The authorities already banned Al-Haj from working as a journalist on 5 July because of the article, which referred to allegations of corruption within the justice ministry.
13.08.2011 - Muscat-based newspaper closed, journalists facing trial over article about justice ministry
Reporters Without Borders has written to Sultan Qaboos, Oman’s head of state, expressing deep concern at tomorrow’s trial of Yousef Al-Haj, a journalist with the Muscat-based daily Al-Zaman, as a result of a complaint by justice minister Mohamed Al-Hanai about article published on 14 May.
In its letter, sent on 11 August, Reporters Without Borders voiced amazement at the range and scale of the charges brought against Al-Haj in response to the article, which quoted a justice ministry employee’s allegations about growing corruption within the ministry and favouritism in promotions.
“The proceedings are out of all proportion to the gravity of the offence and we call for their immediate withdrawal,” the letter said. “We fear that Yousef Al-Haj will not have time to organize his defence for the first hearing and will not get a fair trial.”
After being summoned at short notice for interrogation at the prosecutor’s office on 5 July, without having time to notify is lawyer, Al-Haj was charged with:
- insulting the justice ministry
- insulting the justice minister and his under-secretary
- trying to create divisions within Omani society
- violating article 60 of the civil code (the publications law)
- working as a journalist without a permit.
Reporters Without Borders has been told that Al-Zaman editor Ibrahim Al-Mo'amari had applied for press cards for his journalists and had obtained the requested accreditation for all of them except Al-Haj.
On returning to the newspaper after his interrogation on 5 July, Al-Haj was surprised to find he had been banned by the information ministry from writing any further articles for publication. The ban is still in force. He had been interrogated by the police three times in the past without being banned.
The Reporters Without Borders letter also advised against closing Al-Zaman in response to an order issued by a Muscat court in connection with the case. “It would be regrettable if the Omani courts upheld this decision, which would violate freedom of the press and would give credence to the journalist’s allegedly defamatory claims.” The newspaper has nonetheless been closed.
The president of Al-Zaman’s board, its editor and one of its design editors are also to be tried tomorrow on a charge of illegally employing Al-Haj without a permit from the information ministry. Many journalists work without permits in Oman.