Third journalist from Azamn newspaper arrested in Oman

Omani authorities arrested a third journalist from the independent newspaper Azamn on August 9, 2016, and ordered the paper to cease publishing, according to human rights groups and local news reports.

Yousif al-Haj, a deputy editor at the paper, was taken into custody by the Special Division of the Omani police, according to the independent Monitor of Human Rights in Oman and the Gulf Center for Human Rights. The paper’s editor-in-chief, Ibrahim al-Maamari, and an editor, Zaher al-Abri, remained in detention after their arrests on July 28 and August 3 respectively.

Atheer newspaper, citing an unnamed source from the prosecutor’s office, reported that al-Maamari was under investigation for charges including publishing false news, undermining the prestige of the state, and disturbing public order. Atheer cited the unnamed source as saying that other suspects were under investigation on the same charges and that ultimate responsibility would fall on the editor-in-chief. The other alleged suspects were not identified in the report.

Azamn reported that al-Maamari’s arrest stemmed from a July 26 article, “Supreme bodies tie the hands of justice,” which accused unnamed officials of influencing the Chief Magistrate of the Supreme Court, Ishaq Bin Ahmed Al Bousaidi, to intervene in judicial proceedings about an inheritance dispute. Al Bousaidi has not issued a public response to the claims.

Before his arrest, al-Abri told CPJ that Azamn received an order from the Ministry of Information forbidding it from publishing further details about the case. In protest, the newspaper published a blank space on its front page every day for at least six days.

On August 7 and August 9–the day of al-Haj’s arrest–the paper published interviews with the Deputy Chief Magistrate of the Supreme Court, Ali Salem al-Nuamani. The justice backed the paper’s reporting on allegations of corruption within the judiciary and accused the chief magistrate and other high level officials of violating Omani law. CPJ attempted to contacted the judiciary for comment via email, but received a message saying that the mailbox is full.

After the publication of the second article, the Ministry of Information ordered Azamn to stop all publication and distribution, effective immediately. A photo copy of the order published in local media and by the Monitor of Human Rights in Oman did not specify why the order was issued. As of August 9, 2016, Azamn‘s website was no longer accessible. The web link instead leads to a picture of the three arrested journalists.

Since al-Maamari’s arrest, CPJ has repeatedly requested comment via phone and email from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the office of the Public Prosecutor, the Omani embassy in Washington, D.C., and the Ministry of Information. At the time of publication, no one had responded to CPJ’s requests for comment.

On the day of the latest arrest and closure the official media outlet, Oman News Agency, published a statement from an unnamed “official source” criticizing the reporting of “one of the local daily newspapers” as a “flagrant violation of the ethics of freedom of expression, which is an authentic value advocated by Omani society.” The source blamed the paper for shaking confidence in the judiciary and said that legal action had been taken “without excess or exaggeration.” Azamn was not directly named in the report.

In the days before his arrest, al-Haj wrote several posts on his Facebook page about the interviews with the deputy chief magistrate, and the risks that he and his colleagues face. “All I ask for is the protection afforded to me as a citizen and a journalist,” he wrote on August 6.