New Legal Restrictions on Criminal Case Reporting

Earlier this month, a Royal Decree was issued promulgating a brand new Penal Code. This new law is over a 100 pages long and includes more than 350 legal articles, so it will take us a while to fully comprehend the extent of its implications on our daily lives.

One of the new interesting legal provisions in the Penal Code is Article 249(c). This article makes it a criminal offence to publish the names or photos of those accused or convicted of committing a criminal offence. According to this article, the Public Prosecution or the court must give permission before anyone can publicly share these details. There is also another sub-section in this article that prohibits publishing any news about ongoing investigations.

Prior to the promulgation of this new Penal Code, there was no written legal restriction on the ability of the press, or anyone else, to publish the names or details of those convicted of committing crimes. In fact, the Omani Supreme Court held in two different cases in 2005 and 2006 that the press is entitled to publish the details of a court decision as long as the reported facts are true. However, Article 249(c) now makes this practice illegal if done without the prior permission of the authorities, and the law provides no guidelines as to what factors the authorities will take into consideration when deciding to allow publication of these details.

This, of course, has serious implications on the principle of open justice and freedom of expression. The Omani Constitution makes it clear that all court decisions must be declared in a public hearing to ensure the transparency of the judicial system.

Under this new provision, if a member of the public complains to the Public Prosecution about a misconduct of a certain company, nobody will be allowed to publicly name this company at all without the permission of the authorities, even if the court decides that the company is guilty. For example, if an individual discovers that Apple is stealing personal data from the users of the iPhone, and this individual successfully convinces the Public Prosecution to take legal action against Apple in an Omani court, no newspaper in Oman will be allowed to write a story about Apple being convicted of committing a criminal offence. This, even after Apple is formally found guilty of the crime by the Omani court, unless the court, or the Public Prosecution, decides to give the newspapers this permission.

In this hypothetical case, reporting the case is not only a fundamental right from a freedom of expression point of view, but it is also necessary to ensure that members of the public are aware and protected against the misconduct of such companies.

It has traditionally been very difficult to evaluate the performance of Omani courts because case reporting in Oman has always been lacking. This new provision will make it much more difficult to learn about what the courts are doing and the extent to which they properly enforce the law, because nobody will be allowed to report anything meaningful without the permission of the courts.

Newspapers and users of social media must be careful not to violate the Penal Code by identifying the names of those accused or convicted of committing crimes as this could lead to severe fines and prison sentences.

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