Editor's Note: This article is from Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), a non-profit organization that promotes freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in the Middle East and North Africa.
While the world remains concerned about the repercussions of COVID-19, the Sultanate of Oman approved a new decree that increases the authorities' control over the internet. This will make it more difficult for critics and dissidents to convey critical information without putting themselves at additional risk.
On June 10, Sultan Haitham bin Tarik issued Decree 64 of 2020 establishing the Cyber Defense Center, as a division that comes after the Internal Security Service, known for its continued repression of public freedoms, including freedom of expression. In Internet. On June 14, the Official Gazette 1345 published the method of work of this center, which contains 11 articles.
The Cyber Defense Center system gives absolute control to the Internal Security Service of communication networks and information systems in the country. The decree makes the head of the Internal Security Service the head of the Cyber Defense Center.
It gives the Cyber Defense Center greater authority to import advanced hardware and software that blocks websites or closely monitors the internet. The center has the authorities to supervise any electronic network in the country, and also to isolate it “to address any threat that may harm the national security system, the economy of the sultanate, or its international and regional relations.”
The new decree implies that the Internal Security Service fully controls the devices and data of all institutions and groups in society, and can use this control to offer evidence and information on internet activists who express opinions contrary to the Government on matters of interest. public. This can result in threats and imprisonment for internet activists, and the Judiciary being used against them, if necessary.
Oman has several vague and comprehensive laws in place that criminalize the expression of disagreement and criticism of the country's authorities or rulers.
For example, article 17 of the cybercrime law prescribes sentences of between one month and three years in prison against those convicted of using information and communication technologies to distribute materials that “could harm or violate public ethics”. Although article 19 punishes with the same time in prison those who are convicted of distributing and possessing content that “could harm public order or religious values.
On July 19, the Special Division of the Internal Security Service summoned internet activist Ghazi Al-Awlaki to a police station in Dhofar governorate as a result of his peaceful activities on social media. He was detained until September 7, without access to a lawyer or his family.
The Cyber Defense Center system is a clear attempt to legalize Oman's repressive bosses. This dangerous development, which violates the digital rights of all citizens, including Omani internet activists, has gone unnoticed and has not received coverage in various media.
The Government in Oman must immediately repeal the decree establishing the Cyber Defense Center system to preserve the open space for citizens to exercise their legitimate right to freedom of expression on the internet. The authorities must put an end to all forms of repression against other opinions online and offline.
The task of preserving the Internet and turning it into a tool that contributes to building a prosperous future for all citizens must be entrusted to a group of independent academics and technologists in cooperation with the Ministry of Technology and Communications and other civil entities specialized in governance of internet so that the mission of the security services is limited to dealing with matters of a criminal nature.