In Oman, protests spur timid media to cover the news

By Jackie Spinner

The fact that Oman's first civil unrest in 40 years left at least one person dead in a northern port city here was big news. But it was even bigger news that the English-language Muscat Daily declared “Black Sunday in Sohar” on its front page and carried a half-page photograph showing smoke filling the sky above a roundabout seized by protesters.

For a reserved, conservative country, where media self-censorship is routine and culture dictates that people keep their opinions to themselves, such coverage shows how quickly change is coming to this small Gulf nation.

“I think the fact that we were able to bring out a newspaper with a front-page coverage of the situation in Sohar on Monday is ample proof that Oman is a mature country and everyone here understands that the violence was a random act by hooligans who do not represent what Omanis really believe in,” says Mohana Prabhakar, managing editor of the Muscat Daily, which launched in 2009. “The authorities understand that people need to know what’s happening from a credible source.”

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Press laws in this sleepy sultanate on the Arabian peninsula generally do not prohibit coverage of the government, although people are not allowed to write about or insult the royal family. Still Oman's newspapers typically do not cover stories that might offend the government. In fact, journalists in this country of 2.8 million often express frustration over their inability to break real news and provide accountable reporting of the monarchy.

Sound off: What makes Oman different from other Arab world protests

But in the past few days, nearly all of the major dailies in Oman have reported on the unrest, the state-run TV station has broadcast special programs on the demonstrations, and at least one radio station in the capital broadcast a call-in show where people shared their opinions about what Omanis need. The Oman News Agency also released reports about the demonstrations, sending text messages to some mobile phones with updates.

'Now, there is fun'

The atmosphere of increased freedom is exhilarating for journalists who have long labored under self-censorship, as well as students aspiring to a career in journalism.

“Really, I am surprised,” says an editor at another English-language daily in Muscat, who says that for the first time in six years he is excited about being a journalist in Oman. “Now, there is fun. Even though the incidents are not good, at least we are now able to do true journalism up to an extent.”

Still, he says, he is nervous, which is why he didn't want his name or his publication's name to be used.

“Even though I am not writing anything against the nation, and I am just doing my job sincerely, I am worried that I may drag unnecessary attention from the authorities,” says the man, who is from India.

'Where is Al Jazeera?'

A peaceful protest that began as a sit-in this weekend at the main roundabout to this port city turned violent by Sunday, the start of the work week here, with several hundred protesters hurling rocks at riot police. The police responded with some bombs and canisters of gas.

Many ran away from the sound and then edged back toward the roundabout. They wanted to know where the media were. “Where is Al Jazeera? Where is BBC. We want Al Jazeera,” they shouted.

“See this,” one protester told a Western journalist taking pictures. “This is like Qaddafi.”

This is the first time in four decades that Omanis have seen this level of anger and rioting.

Oman's leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, issued a number of royal decrees to appease the demonstrators, including the establishment of an independent authority for consumer protection and increasing housing allowances for government employees and some university students. The Sultan also made some changes to his cabinet, and announced unemployment wages and 50,000 new jobs.

'I hope the truth will come out'

In Sohar, the scene of the worst violence, the editor of a student magazine at Sohar University says even it will carry coverage of the events.

Kawkab Al Balushi, who will graduate this year, says the Sohar Horizon hasn't carried coverage yet but will have an article in its next issue.

“I hope the truth will come out by that time about who is actually responsible for the fire which started in many places,” says Mr. Balushi. “People in Sohar denied having anything to do with those protesters. I believe that and I know that Omanis won't destroy their own country, as we all love Oman and love His Majesty.”

Balushi says the TV coverage reflects how “unexpected and unprecedented” any public display of discontent is in Oman.

“I hope this issue gets over soon,” he says. “Oman is well known of its peace and security. We want that back.”

'I am not going to be a fashion reporter'

Mass communications students at Sultan Qaboos University in the Omani capital said they were excited for the first time about their future careers as journalists.

One student who has been studying for three years and will graduate this spring says she has never reported before she began interviewing people about the unrest for a special project. Her mother tried to stop her, she says. “But I told her, I am not going to be a fashion reporter,” she recounts. “Why did you let me study media if you didn't want me to do this?”

Obaid Said, a mass communications professor, says many reporters and news organizations in Oman practiced self-censorship.

“Self censorship was prevalent and was accompanied by narrow understanding of the space of freedom guaranteed by the laws in the country on one hand and lack of professionalism on the other,” he says. “It will open their eyes to the importance of reporting local issues in order to regain and maintain their credibility. I think it will last because changes are [sweeping] many aspects, including media.”

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