Omani Freedom of Expression Online

The internet has enabled a lot of people from all around the world to communicate with others and has provided a platform for those without a voice to speak up and reach out for an international audience without any physical restriction, and just as much as it has brought the best of people in terms of creativity and innovation, it has also brought the worst of people as it enabled them to talk freely under the cape of anonymity.

I do not think that I am the only one who said some really strange things to people online which I will never dream of saying to their faces in real life. A visit to any public discussion board on the internet would show you how much people swear at others, make fun of them, and even maybe harass them. Many people forget that there are human beings behinds these nicknames with feelings that could get hurt.

The concept of freedom of expression is pretty new to the traditionally conservative Omani society, and the sudden explosion of opportunities opened by the web led some to assume that freedom of expression means that they have the right to say whatever they want, just because they can, without thinking about the consequences, but the truth is that there is nowhere in the world where freedom of speech is an unlimited right, because no matter what personal right a person has, it must not infringe on the rights of others.
In Oman, and many other countries, this right is restricted by some other legal principles such as defamation and breach of confidence. Defamation is generally defined as the act of spreading false information about a person which could harm that person’s reputation. This law is much stricter in Oman than in some other places like the UK or the USA as defamation is a criminal act and not merely a civil matter. In addition to this, there is no clear requirement in the law for the statement to be false for it to be offensive but merely requires it to have the consequence of damaging that person’s reputation.

Freedom of expression is further restricted by the law of the breach of confidence, if a person receives any information with a clear expectation to keep that information in confidence, that person would be under a legal duty not to disclose that information to anyone else. This is a general principle that applies to all sorts of information whether it was a private issue told between friends or a serious confidential document delivered in a professional capacity, for example, the medical records of a patient.

These two are examples of the most obvious restrictions to freedom of expression on the internet or otherwise, but are not the only ones, in Oman, the Telecommunication Law also provides for a number of other restrictions such as prohibiting the transmission of harmful and untruthful messages through any means of communication.

The perception of the internet as an unregulated medium that allows people to say anything they want is far from true, the legal system covers a wide number of instances where speech on the internet could be punishable, and with the development of new methods for tracking the visitors of a website, it becomes not too difficult to enforce these laws on the internet.

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.

Ali Al Zuwaidi’s Trial Outcome

Ali Al Zuwaidis Trial
(Baby photo credits: utpal)

Earlier today the court issued its ruling on the two cases of Ali Al Zuwaidi. The first case involved a defamation claim made by the CEO of OmanMobile  for content published on Omania2.net – an online discussion board which Al Zuwaidi moderated. Posting on various forums report that the court held that Al Zuwaidi is not guilty of the offenses of Article 61(4) of the Telecom Act. This Article specifies that a forum moderator is to be held responsible for content written by third parties on his forum if that content is contrary to public order.

It is unknown how the court reached the conclusion that Al Zuwaidi is not to be held liable, did the judge concluded that the defamatory content in that post did not amount to material contrary to public order? was it because the content did not remain for a long period on the website, or was there another defence? We don’t know.

The second case involved the disclosure of a confidential government document by Ali Al Zuwaidy on the forum. Al Zuwaidi, who is a civil servant, acquired a document through the course of his employment and then published it on a number of Omani discussion boards. The document disclosed the government’s intention to have a popular radio show pre-recorded instead of airing it live to ensure it’s ability to censor anything on it if it wishes. The court held that Al Zuwaidi was guilty of an offense for leaking a confidential government document in accordance with Article 164 of the Criminal Law 7/74. Al Zuwaidi was sentenced for a 10 day imprisonment and the payment of a fine of RO 200 ($500).

The court held that the time served during the interrogation (11 days) is to be deducted from the prison sentence, so in practice Al Zuwaidi would be required to pay the fine.

As a civil servant, Al Zuwaidi job might also be terminated in accordance with Article 140 of the Civil Service Law for committing a criminal offense or an offense related to trust and honor.

The actual text of the judgement is expected to be available to the public in a period of two weeks.