The French Publishers Association and the organisers of the Paris Book Fair announced, in Paris, on 19 July 2018 that the Ministry of Information of the Sultanate of Oman signed an agreement to participate as a “special guest”. The Omani delegation confirmed its participation at the 2019 Paris Book Fair at a formal signing ceremony held at the headquarters of the French Publishers Association. The Undersecretary of Oman’s Ministry of Information and the President of the French Publishers Association co-signed the agreement.
The authorities in Oman confiscated a large number of books during the twenty-third Muscat International Book Fair, held on 20 February to 02 March 2019. They gave no explanation or reasons for confiscating the books. The authorities withdrew a range of Omani-authored books and novels, although a number of them had already been sold at previous exhibitions. Some of the confiscated works had won awards, while others had received critical acclaim. Others still were published by the Omani Ministry of Heritage and Culture, the same body that organised the Muscat fair, reflecting the contradictory and random nature of the books’ withdrawal.
Oman has witnessed a decline in press freedom in recent years and is now ranked in 127th place on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2018 World Press Freedom Index. Freedom House has rated Oman as a non-free country. This is attributed to the ongoing targeting by the Omani authorities of the independent press, after they closed down “Azamn” newspaper and imprisoned its journalists; harassed editors of the online magazine “Mwatin”, threatening to imprison them, and put restrictions on the online “Al-Balad” newspaper.
Al-Balad’s editor-in-chief, Turki Al-Balushi, said in his new book, published in 2019: “Al-Balad newspaper decided to close the newspaper permanently after editor-in-chief Turki bin Ali Al-Balushi was imprisoned and interrogated for days and threatened with trial if the newspaper continues its editorial line.” Which led to its closure.
In addition, a large number of intellectuals and activists were imprisoned for varying periods solely due to their writings on social media. Internet activist and human rights defender Hassan Al-Basham died in prison while serving his sentence of three-year imprisonment after expressing his views on the Internet.
The Undersecretary of the Omani Ministry of Information stressed the importance of the Sultanate’s participation in the Paris Book Fair to explain its vision and mission and to build a cultural connection with the Sultanate’s civilisation and culture. The reality, however, is that freedom of expression and the civic space in Oman are not merely shrinking but rather, they do not, for all intents and purposes, exist. This is in stark contrast with the words of Oman’s Undersecretary of the Ministry of Information, which he made while in France, whose 1789 revolution helped pave the way towards the protection of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of opinion and expression.
The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and the Omani Association for Human Rights (OAHR) call on the Omani authorities to recognise the significance of its participation as a special guest at the 2019 Paris Book Fair and declare that it will end restrictions imposed on the enjoyment by writers and all those in Oman of fundamental rights and freedoms including freedom of the press, opinion, expression and assembly. Likewise, it should fulfill its obligations regarding the provision and protection of civil space and end harassment of human rights defenders, including writers, journalists and Internet activists.
GCHR and OAHR also call on the organizing committee of the 2019 Paris Book Fair to urge the Omani authorities to immediately stop the systematic campaign against all writers as well as the targeting of activists.