Sunday, 27 April 2014

My experiences on working with the media industry in the Sultanate of Oman

 I’ve always wanted to analyse the problems faced by journalists who work for organisations that are based in the Middle East, because doing so provides a challenge seldom found in the West.

This report lists the work I had been assigned by the publications, how the press laws in Oman played a hand in shaping my articles, how they are detrimental to society, how I was able to work around them and what I learned from this experience.

Overview: Omani media industry

Like most of the other Arab nations, (Fenton, 2009), the press in Oman has strict limits on freedom of free speech and expression. Global freedom watchdog Freedom House categorises Oman’s press as ‘Not Free’ (Freedom House, 2012).

Issued in 1984, Oman’s press laws are highly restrictive (Freedom House, 2012). Omani publications are heavily censored and criticism of the government is banned (O'Rourke, 2011), even if it is found guilty of shirking its duties.

For example, three years ago, two Omani journalists were jailed for exposing a corruption racket inside the Ministry of Justice (Al-Shaibany, 2011). This is because the government views the press as a tool for ‘nation building and reinforcing social integration’. (Hetherington & Najem, 2013).

This blanket ban also restricts the media from criticising governmental policies across all walks of life.

For example, financial magazine Oman Economic Review recently conducted a survey of banks in Oman and reported positively on all of them. The magazine had to, because Omani banks are partly owned by the government (Bologna & Prasad, 2010).

These included interviews with the banks’ top brass and didn’t question their long-term sustainability and growth. How these banks were going to continue to function once the nation’s fleeting oil reserves had dried up wasn’t mentioned, since it is known that most Arab states have oil-based economies (Winckler, 2005).

This is very dangerous, as it means people can lose their savings overnight without being forewarned. 

The government uses publications to pass information to people. Readers’ feedback is rarely entertained. (Rugh, 2004)

Attempting to bypass this censorship, several online discussion forums have sprung up, chief among them being Sablat Oman, with close to 100,000 registered users (Reality in Oman, 2009). Topics here range from international discussions such as Iran’s nuclear programme to domestic ones such as forced marriage.

But even these sites aren’t wholly free. Although Oman only experienced minor protests during the Arab Spring three years ago, the call to protest against the government was instigated by sites such as Sablat Oman (Worrall, 2012), just as social media was (and still is) being used throughout the rest of the Arab world to coordinate action (Lindsey, 2013) during the Arab Spring.

As a consequence, Sablat Oman was temporarily blocked (Freedom House, 2012).

The changing Omani labour market

One of a journalist’s most important tools is his list of contacts because they provide information that is vital to stories (Keeble, 2007). These lists take years to develop – like mine did – and are constantly added to and subtracted from (Stephenson, 1998).

It is because of these contacts that I was able to get a foothold into Omani media market.

My father knew Mr. Sandeep Sehgal, CEO of media house United Media Services (UMS), who required freelancers.

Journalists in Oman require a license to practise their profession (Ministry of Information, 2002), and at news conferences, must carry ID. Because of a lack of skilled locals, companies hire expatriates to fill vacancies.
As the country developed, the government continued to invite foreigners to fill jobs in an expanding labour market.

Since 2003, the government has introduced Omanisation, where locals are given preference over expatriates. Ergo, the government has been reducing the number of work visas for expatriates (Vaidya, 2013).

This is because of a recent population boom in Arabia. In 2006, there was a 42% increase in the number of people who were below the age of 15 years in the Arab world, compared to 20% in the developed world and 35% in the developing world (U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, 2006). This increased labour pool would therefore need to be given preference when it comes to employment. Correspondingly, 40% of all Omanis are between 20 and 44 years old (Watfa, 2009).

Unfortunately, there is a lack of skilled Omanis across the media (Josephi, 2010) and other sectors. Training the next generation of Omanis is time consuming (Oxford Business Group, 2013).
Here, freelancers like me come in. Although technically not allowed under law (Freedom House, 2012), there are no listed work restrictions on those who come to Oman on visit or resident visas as listed on UK visas.

Freelancers are allowed to write articles and conduct interviews.

My work

During this assignment, I’d done two articles. The first was a piece on travel titled “10 Tourist Destinations of Myth and Legend” for Signature magazine, a lifestyle magazine run by UMS.

The second was an exclusive interview with former Arsenal winger Fredrik Ljungberg.

In addition, I went for a week-long internship with the editorial department at UMS, to get a feel of how those who are responsible for the content of publications in Oman do so within the framework of the law.

My first article

How the law shaped its construction

The article was about ten relatively unheard-of tourist destinations. Five of these were set in the Middle East, the other five were from the rest of the world.

The first instruction I was given was that there were to be no destinations which were located in nations that had poor diplomatic relations with the Sultanate of Oman.  The second was that there were to be no tourist places that had a direct connection to religion.

That first directive meant that I could not mention places that were located in Israel, because Oman is one of 31 nations to not recognise the sovereignty of the Jewish State (U.S. Congress, 2008).

I had initially wanted to write about visiting the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Held in great reverence by Muslims, Jews and Christians (Ring, et al., 1996), it was also supposed to be the original resting place of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (Loud, 2010).

The second instruction meant that I couldn’t write about places that were primarily famous for religious reasons. In Oman, many laws are based on Islamic law. Publications must cover articles of culture, religion and tradition without criticism and promoting religion via media is prohibited (Josephi, 2010).

Islam is the dominant religion here and is central to life (U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, 2006) and there are still disagreements among Arabs regarding religious practice. Promoting religion might therefore lead to popular dissent (Figenschou, 2014 ).

For example, seven months ago, local magazine The Week published an interview with a gay expatriate living in Oman who said that the nation was quite tolerant to homosexuals. The magazine later had to apologise for this article (AFP, 2013), despite speaking about Oman positively, since Islam forbids homosexuality (Al-Haqq Kugle, 2010) and is punished in Oman via imprisonment (AFP, 2013).

I couldn’t therefore write about Easter Island, which is famous for its massive monolithic head constructs called Moai, which were constructed by its former inhabitants, the Rapa Nui, between 1250 and 1500 AD (Fischer, 2005).

These heads were considered by the Rapa Nui to be deified versions of their ancestors, which are why this island is famous (Hunt & Lipo, 2011). To mention them would therefore be promoting religion. 

My workaround

Some of the other areas I described did have religious significance, but were also famous otherwise. I therefore omitted their religious significance.

Delphi was where the most powerful Ancient Greek Oracles resided, and it was believed that they could foretell the future because they were blessed by the gods (Kofsky, 2000). Similarly, the Egyptians constructed pyramids were constructed to honour the gods, besides serving as their Pharaohs’ tombs (Munt, 2013).

I therefore mentioned that the oracles were blessed with the ability to predict the future, but didn’t mention a divine connection. The Egyptians however believed that mummification was a cultural, not a religious belief (Rockwood, 2014) and so that could be mentioned.

Tenochtitlan and Chichen Itza involved the Aztec and Mayan civilisations, which practiced religiously-motivated human sacrifice (Palmer-Fernandez, 2004) to please the gods in exchange for plentiful harvests and rainfall (Page, 2010).

Most interesting here was that they waged war to capture people to sacrifice (Perl, 2008), which draws parallels with the Islamic concept of jihad or war for the sake of religion (Habeck, 2006).

I therefore described these cities as architectural marvels and made sure my piece spoke about Aztec and Mayan society, not religious acts.

I’d written on Petra, a UN Heritage Site that was only discovered by the West in the early 19th century (Walker, 2009). But it had long been a place of great significance for the Arabs even during Biblical times.

Petra was where Moses ‘raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.’ (Wantang, 2013). That could therefore not be mentioned and I focused on Petra from an archaeological perspective.

I’d also mentioned Hornstrandir in Iceland, where Viking leader Erik the Red reportedly settled before sailing for Greenland (Agnarsdóttir, 2001). The Vikings practised paganism as a form of religion (Strmiska, 2005), which couldn’t be mentioned.

I’d added three alternative locations in case one of the ten were unacceptable. Machu Picchu was one. Even here, I’d only mentioned the names of temples because they were architectural marvels that were years ahead of its time in terms of construction, (Peterson, 2006) with no mention of religious practices.

But while writing about Zanzibar, which was once part of Oman’s empire, I couldn’t mention the thriving slave trade in that region (Dumper & Stanley, 2007), because it goes against Oman’s current establishment. I therefore completely excluded the slave trade while describing Zanzibar’s trade.

However, guided tours of Petra (Walker, 2009), Machu Picchu, Zanzibar and Iceland all involve the above as part of the tour.

My second article

While freelancing for UMS, I received the opportunity to interview Arsenal legend Fredrik Ljungberg, who’d come to visit Oman’s Arsenal Soccer School.

A meet and greet had been organised for the press, after which he would take part in training sessions with the children at the School. That was only open to the school’s children and their parents.

Because my editor knew Mr Mihir Khimji, the director at the School, he could arrange for an exclusive interview. The visit of a footballer of Mr. Ljungberg’s calibre is quite a prestigious event and the publication that has his interview would certainly have a competitive edge in the media market.

Timing was of the essence here as this interview would have to be included in his itinerary. I was informed of the interview a good two days before Mr. Ljungberg arrived. Mr. Ljungberg was in Oman for less than a day and he had a packed schedule. Someone who’d not known Mr. Khimji would’ve had to make the request to interview him through the official channels at the Soccer School. They might have been rejected because his time was extremely limited.

Meeting Mr. Ljungberg was a great experience as it taught me not to get carried away while interviewing celebrities. As a football journalist, there will be many personages I will interview during my career and I have to remember to behave professionally.

Psychological and social consequences of these press laws
Because I had to censor my travel article, it might provide a skewed perspective of these locations. People therefore become unaware and ignorant (de Baets, 2002) of the great histories of these places.
For example, it is widely believed (Raj & Morpeth, 2007) that Machu Picchu was a pagan centre of spiritual energy around the world, similar to Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids that made people more spiritually aware. To learn about these places would greatly add to the cultural and spiritual education of people.

Similarly, people are missing out on learning about Christian history because informing them about Biblical sites in Petra isn’t allowed. Learning about these places makes people religiously tolerant (Knauth, 2013). Religion has long been a source of conflict and learning about other religions could lead to conflict resolution (Garfinkel, 2008).

I believe that for a society to advance properly, it must be provided with uncensored information. People can then make informed opinions based on the complete set of facts to allow for social pluralism and an open discussion of ideas (Council of Europe, 1982).

Despite the light tone of my work, I was scared of even accidentally breaking these laws. I was therefore forced to self-censor my work, thereby foregoing my freedom of expression, a cornerstone of creative and artistic freedom (Cuny & Polacek, 2012), which is essential for human development (Short, 2009).

This lack of freedom of free speech stunts mental growth and robs humans of the tools required to develop their minds. It prevents people from using their minds to form and then ask questions against the system, making society backward (Baggini & Southwell, 2012).

Most articles I wrote during my internship were leisure pieces, with little political investigative journalism happening. Ergo, there was no application of the mind, leading to little creative journalistic development 

While there a little investigative journalism, that centres on social events which uplift society. A majority of pieces in magazines are leisure articles. It is the same with editorial columns.

That Freedom of Expression was included in the Rights of Man (Brett, 1998) shows how important it is for human development. When governments enforce absolute censorship, it is quite likely that this lack of forming questions will spread to other aspects of life, thereby further stunting mental growth and society can never develop.

Qatar is one Middle East nation that has realised this. The Al-Jazeera Network was the first to introduce free speech to the Arab world and went so far as to criticise the Saudi Arabian, Bahraini and even Qatari governments (Falk, 2008).

But other Arab nations do not seem to agree with this line of thought. In 2008, they signed a restrictive media charter which instructed broadcasters ‘not to not damage social harmony, public unity, national order or traditional virtues’ (Zweiri & Murphy, 2011)

Qatar was the only nation that refused to sign this document because it realised that unrestricted media was necessary for the country’s social development (Miles, 2005).

This aside, the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community development hosts the Doha Debates which are televised on BBC World and are viewed as a forum of dialogue and free speech. They are no holds barred discussions where controversial topics are argued for and against by a live audience and a panel of experts (Oxford Business Group, 2007).

Also, in 2006, an Arabic programme named Lakoom Al Karaar (The Decision is Yours) began broadcasting on Qatar National TV. This programme offered children the opportunity to question decision-makers on issues that mattered to them, encouraging them to talk to their government from an early age (Oxford Business Group, 2009).

What this does is promote free speech and will surely benefit future generations of Qataris.

What I learned

There is much that I’ve learned here. I was able to think out of the box. As journalists, we are trained to strike at the heart of the matter and flesh out the story from there (Iorio, 2004). But because there were some things I had to overlook, it taught me to look change the heart of the matter and construct a story around that.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution says that there should be creative freedom for self-determination (Corey, 1994) and these restrictions actually helped me realise that it was possible to create informative pieces that people would want to read even with all these censors in place and that ability to form a story with only limited information at your disposal is I think a very handy talent to have.

For example, during my internship, I wrote a piece on Five Inspirational TED Talks by Women. One of them was delivered by Liberian Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee. She empowered women to vote against corrupt officials, but centring the story on that meant it would be considered against the government. I therefore centred it around her providing education to African women so that they could remain self-sufficient, which meant it was still thought-provoking journalism.

A version of the travel article I would’ve written has been posted on my blog: www.gbvishjourno.blogspot.com. Also on the blog is the write-up on Leymah Gbowee’s talk that. I’d initially planned on writing

I also learnt that having access to people in power helps bypass administrative ‘gatekeepers’ (Randall, 2007) such as secretaries who might control access to potential interviewees. This can help provide the competitive edge for your publication to stand out from the rest.

But the negatives here dwarf the positive lessons. The government claims that these restrictions have been placed for positive social construction, but society cannot be positively constructed without unrestricted access to free media (Miles, 2005).

What I’ve also experienced here is that journalists and editors are under constant pressure to censor their work, because even an accidental slip-up might mean breaking the law.

This constant pressure is extremely detrimental to one’s mental and physical wellbeing (Cooper & Burnham, 2009). That makes the pursuing of a career involving in-depth investigative and political journalism highly for most Middle Eastern publications extremely unfeasible.

Unless, therefore, these sanctions are lifted or eased forthwith, not only will skilled journalists seek out other countries for employment, but more importantly, it’ll be extremely difficult for a broad-minded society to be formed in Oman and by extension, other places that have such draconian press laws.

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