Throughout the week of May 23-27, 2021, large numbers of Omanis took to the streets to protest poverty and unemployment. The protestors, the majority of whom were young people frustrated by their long and fruitless search for work, demanded better job opportunities, economic reform, and the resignation of the minister of Information. This rather surprising demand brought to the forefront the issue of media freedom in Oman, and the extent to which media, whether private or state-owned, reflects social and individual positions, opinions about public policies, and core economic and political concerns. This demand also raised the question of whether the state-owned media is competent enough to play an effective role in the socio-economic reform that the protesters called for, especially as the current minister of information comes from a non-media background.
The issue with Omani media runs much deeper than this, however, as indicated by its behavior during the demonstrations. On the second day of the protests (which began on May 23), protestors circulated a list of demands on social media for the resignation of different ministers in the government, among whom was the minister of information. That day’s newspapers made no mention of the hundreds of protestors in the city of Sohar, who were tear-gassed and arrested by the police. Social media, on the other hand, especially Twitter, started reporting the protests live by publishing videos and sound bites and creating hashtags such as #صحار -تنتفض (Sohar is rising up) that immediately went viral.
The official media blackout led the protestors to feel that they were deliberately ignored by their government whose media apparatus failed once again to keep up with the demands for social change. The minister of information seemed unable to steer the traditional media outlets away from the dominance of powerful statesmen who control what gets published and what gets buried, and who can easily crush social media activists using the Cybercrime law.
Consequently, citizen journalism flourished across various platforms. The demonstrators put their experiences of previous unrest, for example in Sohar in 2011, to use in organizing or responding to the government’s accusations of sabotage and treason. Hashtags showing support from other cities such as #صلالة_تتضامن (Salalah is rising up), demanding freedom of peaceful assembly and rejecting treason accusations became widespread.
In the absence of traditional media coverage, activists published daily clips on YouTube showing the protests in Sohar and other cities. These clips found their way to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, the most popular social media platform in Oman. People also recorded audio messages explaining what was happening, took pictures, and filmed video clips at locations including oil companies to show that Omanis were not able to find jobs even in the largest industrial sector in the country.
What the protestors aimed to achieve by collecting and sharing information was to engage their fellow citizens and help mobilize their collective action against the abysmal economic conditions as well as the willful negligence of the government and its media apparatus toward the plight of thousands of unemployed or laid off youth, in addition to that of the 70 percent of government employees who were forced into early retirement.
The reaction of the Omani authorities to the coverage was cautious as videos of the dissent continued to flood social media platforms. After videos of security forces unleashing tear gas were widely circulated, other videos showing less aggressive police handing out bottles of cold water to the demonstrators who were gathered under the scorching sun appeared the next day. These videos showed riot police, who clearly outnumbered the protestors, in cities including Bidiyah, Salalah, Ibri, and Ibra standing to the sides, monitoring, and refraining from intervention. This calm and controlled response from the government can be attributed, though only in part, to the activity of citizen journalists whose coverage drew international attention to Oman and threatened to damage its image as stable and dependable.
With hashtags advocating support for famous activists including #الحرية _لعبد العزيز _البلوشي(free Abdelaziz Al- Bulushi) and #علوي_المشهور_يمثلني (Alawi Al-Mashhoor represents me) creating tremendous traffic, the authorities responded quickly. Abdulaziz al-Bulushi was released one day after his arrest and the harsh campaign against Alawi al-Mashhoor stopped due to this support. Al-Mashhoor, is a prominent activist who spoke forcefully against both the government and the private sector for their poor performance and lack of transparency when it came to Omanization.
It is remarkable, however, that prominent Omani journalists and writers resorted to their Facebook pages or Twitter accounts to speak about the protests rather than discuss them in local, traditional media outlets. It is also worth noting that local newspapers started discussing the economic situation and the job seekers’ problems as a direct result of the successful social media campaign.
Incompetent Media Officials Affect Freedom of the Press
The discrepancies in performance between citizen journalism and traditional media, with its experienced professionals and state of the art tools, are staggering and indicative of three important problems: the stern restrictions throttling media freedom, the inefficiency of media officials, and their inability to reform this critical state apparatus.
Although the constitution of Oman clearly supports the freedom of the press, it confines that freedom within the limits of the law of Press and Publication, which allows the state to hold a tight grip on all visual, audio or print media. It is also unclear for many Omanis how senior positions in the government are filled. The government usually includes a mix of technocrats, representatives of prominent tribes, and powerful businessmen. However, despite this apparent diversity, the selection criteria remain an unsolved enigma. The only clear measure for choice, as it seems, is blind loyalty to the higher authorities. These appointees retain a relatively limited role in government and cannot make any substantive or meaningful decisions without referring to the Sultan, who is the head of the country and its prime minister.
The two legislative chambers of the parliament, the appointed Council of State and the elected Consultative Council, have no actual power over the appointment of senior positions in the government. And as appointment criteria are either absent or unclear, Omanis were bewildered when Abdulla Al-Harrasi kept his position as Information Minister, even after the reshuffle in 2020. Al-Harrasi, who holds a PhD in English language and translation, has been the head of PART (Public Authority for Radio and TV) since 2011, while Abdumonam Al-Hosni, who has a PhD in Media Management, held the position from 2012 to August 2020. The reshuffle merged PART with the ministry of information, ousting Al-Hosni and replacing him with Al-Harrasi, whose performance has been subject to continuous criticism ever since. It is clear that keeping Al-Harrasi as minister of information is not based on competency.
What caused state media to fail and citizen journalism to excel?
The failure of traditional media to depart from its long-standing pro-government position is the main reason why its reporting of the dissent was meagre and biased. For example, Omani TV was quick to announce the government’s plan to make 32,000 jobs immediately available as a short-term fix to the crisis. The next day this announcement was splashed across the front pages of all local newspapers, while no significant mention was made of the dissent in the streets. The deliberate decision to ignore the unrest reflected the state media apparatus’ lack of credibility, as it continues to function as a mouthpiece for the government, presenting only one voice and one viewpoint.
The Omani media, in its current form, seems dated and unable to compete with the youthful and agile citizen journalism, which operates quickly and interactively in the relative freedom of cyberspace. The gap between the two can hardly be missed by Omani citizens who hope to have a more professional and credible media apparatus.
The question remains as to whether the Omani government is sincere about empowering and improving its media apparatus or whether it will continue its exploitation for the benefit of the elite who control the country politically and economically, and who make media appointments who will support their continuation in power.
If the authorities decide to reform media outlets, their first step should involve loosening the legal restraints that are currently strangling, intimidating, and impeding journalists and media organizations in Oman. A second step would be the appointment of experienced media experts who are willing and capable of making critical professional decisions, unhindered by fear or personal gain, and who give equal importance to the voices of the Omani people and their government representatives.
Rafiah Al Talei is the acting Editor-in-Chief for Sada in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, follow her on Twitter @raltalei.