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oman

Sea change in media coverage

Reporting on violence is unprecedented

By Jackie Spinner, Christian Science Monitor
00:00 March 3, 2011

Muscat: 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 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 in this country.

"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, launched in 2009.

"The authorities understand that people need to know what's happening from a credible source."

Press laws in Oman 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.

Special programmes

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