To Say or Not To Say.
In a country where Internet penetration is 95.5 per cent (June 2012), the service is no longer a luxury and is changing the ways people use it. Social media portals like blogs, Facebook and Twitter now rival conventional news sources in terms of how people get their day-to-day news. And it is for this reason that the laws related to this field are rapidly evolving to keep up. Apart from these legal aspects, in a socially conservative region, Internet-based social media users have to be sensitive to the public's sensibilities as well. TheWeek spoke with three prominent bloggers about their experiences and views on what it means to be a blogger in this country.
"Most of the bloggers I know want to remain within the framework of the law, more so following the recent developments," said Andy Brown, author of the popular Andy in Oman blog. "It would be nice to be know exactly what these laws are and where we can look them up. That would make everything clear and bloggers would know their limitations."
This is hardly a surprise because most of the laws surrounding blogging and Facebook and Twitter usage are no more than two years old. "Our laws regarding Internet usage are developing with society's changing needs," said Ahmed al Rawahi, public prosecutor at the Public Prosecution department. "The new Anti-Information Tec-hnology Law Crimes Law is still evolving and growing to include newer popular Internet practices like blogging and other social media platforms."
While the freedom to express personal opinions is enshrined in Chapter 3 of the Basic Statutes of the State, it has certain limitations that Ahmed feels are essential for maintaining fairness and order. "This statute guarantees a person's basic rights like the freedom to worship in a place of his choice and also the freedom to have an opinion and to express it," said Ahmed. "But all these fundamental rights are limited by provisions in
order to make sure that by exercising them we don't infringe on someone else's."
In the case of freedom of expression, while Article 29 of the Basic Statutes guarantees the right to have and express an opinion, there are various limits. "The limits include defamation, libel, infringing on a person's privacy and expressing opinions that could jeopardise the peace and well-being of an individual or the entire nation," Ahmed said. "So, for example, you are well within your rights to criticise a government institution without specifically naming a particular official as that would be considered defamatory to him."
According to Ahmed, this is the only way to ensure the rights of the person exercising their freedom to express their opinion and of those against whom it might be directed. The laws are the same for both Omani nationals and expatriates living in the country.
Although Dhofari Gucci feels that such laws are necessary, to her, their enforcement has been suspect. The anonymous blogger from Oman's southernmost region has been blogging for the last three years and is known for writing on controversial topics like female genital mutilation, religion, politics, domestic abuse, racism etc. "Compared to other countries in the region, Oman had been fairly relaxed when it came to blogging and other Internet-based social media platforms until very recen-tly," she said.
And it's not just legal repercussions that bloggers like Dhofari Gucci and Riyadh al Balushi have to deal with while presenting their views on their popular blogs.
"Self censorship is a big part of Omani society and not just in blogging. Not only are there a lot of legal restrictions on the kind of criticism you can make of the government but a lot of social restrictions on the kind of topics you can discuss in public. There are a lot of subjects that society will not allow bloggers to discuss even though they might not necessarily violate the law," said Riyadh of the popular blogs Blue-Chi.com, OmaniCuisine.com and myITLawyer.com.
Riyadh cited an instance when a fellow blogger raised the issue of liberalising Oman's alcohol policy. "The readers of his blog and the Omani community at large did not seem very supportive of his choice of topic and hundreds of comments and blog posts harshly criticising him were published all over the Internet. There have been instances where I might have liked to talk about certain social issues but I chose not to because I knew people would judge me for talking about them, especially because I write under my real name."
Although Dhofari Gucci often receives hate mail threatening to report her to the authorities for writing about taboo subjects, she feels that her pseudonym gives her more freedom to voice her opinions more freely. "If I were blogging under my real name, my blog wouldn't exist today. My feminist views would be unwelcome among members of my tribe and Omani society in general. And so by blogging in English and by remaining anonymous, I have managed to protect my family's identity," she said.
Despite all this, Andy still feels that the level of freedom to express your views enjoyed in this country is a lot better than other countries in the region. "The fact that I can express my religiously-opinionated views as an observant and openly Christian blogger in Oman is a good indicator of the level of freedom enjoyed by people in this country," he said.
Ahmed suggests that since the laws relating to these new technologies are still evolving, it is a good idea to stay abreast of them. "These new Internet laws are all detailed on various government websites and people should know them so that they don't publish anything that is contrary to the law of the land or against the sensibilities of the people," he said.
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