Reporters Without Borders lambasted the Sultanate of Oman for banning the media from giving space or airtime to two writers and intellectuals for the past five months and called for them to be allowed to be interviewed freely again.
The blacklisting appears to be linked to comments the two made on the Iranian channel Al-Alam casting doubt on government commitment to political reform.
Writer Mohammed Al-Harthi has had his weekly column banned from the official daily Oman. Poet Abdullah Al-Ryami, has seen his once frequent appearances on state-run national television cancelled one after the other.
Both Al-Harthi and Al-Ryami believe that the Oman authorities probably gave verbal instructions to editors of newspapers and directors of programmes on public radio and television forbidding them to interview the two intellectuals or even to mention their names or their work.
Contacted by Reporters Without Borders, the information ministry refused to explain the measure, limiting itself to citing various minor amendments made to the press law in August 2004.
The worldwide press freedom organisation condemned the attitude of the Oman authorities in ruling what subjects are "lawful" and "unlawful" and which guests can or cannot be invited on to the airwaves. In a democratic country, journalists make this choice.
The organisation urged Oman to allow the national media the freedom to interview the two to prove that political modernisation is under way in the Sultanate. Political opening should include respect for a free and independent press and reform of the still very harsh press law, it said.
Reporters Without Borders urged the Sultanate of Oman, a UNESCO member since 10 February 1972, to respect the 1995 Alma-Ata declaration, in which it undertook to pass legislation "establishing freedom of expression and opinion, access to information and press freedom" and to "end monopolies and all forms of discrimination in radio broadcasting".
The two intellectuals told Reporters Without Borders by phone that the press code was "obsolete" and condemned the authorities' systematic control of all means of expression.
Al-Harthi said the Oman press law, which has not been reformed since 1984, gave the information ministry the power to try and jail journalists without having to explain itself to anyone. Al-Ryami said the authorities "attached no importance to press freedom and continued to crackdown on any opinions differing from the government's. Every means of expression including the Internet were subjected to censorship.
TV channel Al-Alam put out two programmes in July 2004 on the subject of democratic reform in the Sultanate. Several members of the State Council (Majlis Al-Dawla) and the Consultative Assembly (Majlis Al-Shura) due to take part in the first programme on 7 July, pulled out at the last moment.
During the programme, Mohammed Al-Harthi and Abdullah Al-Ryami both expressed their doubts about the government's willingness to start genuine democratic reform.
A week later, Oman television refused to let its studios to Al-Alam and most of the leading Oman figures due to take part again pulled out. The second programme was finally broadcast from Beirut and Al-Ryami and Al-Harthi contributed by telephone.
Al-Harthi had a weekly cultural column entitled Charafat (Platforms) in the daily Oman. He has published several books and collections of poems, some of which are banned in Oman.
Al Ryami is a theatre director and has published literary works and collections of poems. His works used to be broadcasted on Oman radio and television. Since making his comments on Al-Alam, his poems and theatre works have been taken off the programme schedule in Oman radio, television and daily newspapers. Lately presenters who invited him to take part in special programmes linked to Ramadam, were reminded by their management that they could not work with him. The writer continues to post his views on various Internet sites such as www.kikah.com, an independent cultural review.
A press under government control
The 1984 press law lays down fines of up to 5,000 US dollars and prison sentences of up to two years. A commission chaired by the ministry of information and which all decisions have to be approved by the minister, is responsible for authorising any new publications. In August 2004 it announced that the capital legally required to launch a publication would be raised to a minimum of half a million dollars, making it harder to create a new title.