Reporters Without Borders

Freedom of information threatened by visa refusals, filming bans and arbitrary arrest

Freedom of information threatened by visa refusals, filming bans and arbitrary arrest

Published on Monday 1 October 2012.
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Reporters Without Borders is very worried by the signs of a decline in respect for freedom of information – including visa problems, filming bans, arbitrary arrest and deportation – since the election of the General National Congress on 7 July.

Several foreign journalists have told Reporters Without Borders they have had difficulties getting visas to visit Libya, especially after the 11 September attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.

Those who managed to go have had problems with the militias, especially when trying to take photos or film the peaceful protests against US ambassador Chris Stevens’ death.

The Supreme Security Committee (SSC) has also arrested journalists arbitrarily.

Its victims include the British filmmaker and journalist Sharron Ward and her Libyan interpreter, who were detained while filming at a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) at Janzour, 12 km west of Tripoli, on 19 July and were held for nearly eight hours. Ward was then detained again for three days, from 21 to 23 July, before being deported.

"Foreign and national journalists must be able to work freely in post-Gaddafi Libya," Reporters Without Borders said. "Abuse of power should be a thing of the past. It is true the country is in full transition but the Supreme Security Committee’s high-handed behaviour is disturbing. We call on the new government, above all the interior ministry, to investigate these incidents and to return the equipment that was arbitrarily confiscated from these journalists."

Ward gave Reporters Without Borders the following account:

Her first detention

I had a proper journalist visa as well as all the necessary Libyan press credentials. I was filming openly at the Janzour camp and had been there all afternoon. We were not stopped or checked at any time on entering the camp. Nonetheless we ended up being detained. In the evening, after being questioned, we were told we could leave.

But then two men in civilian dress turned up and said they would “drive us home. It turned out they were members of the Supreme Security Committee’s Second Brigade and they took us to their base in Ain Zara, in southeastern Tripoli for further questioning. This was despite the fact that I had proper press credentials and permission to film at the camp, and dozens of journalists had previously been there without permission.

After threatening to throw us in jail for two days, in order to wait for officials competent to question us, they eventually released us that night thanks to the British Embassy’s intervention. However they kept my camera equipment, press passes and passport.

Summoned for more questioning

My interpreter and I had to return to the Second Brigade base two days later, on 21 July, for “further investigations.” We were questioned further about the permission we had received to film at the camp. After a break for Iftar (the evening meal that breaks the Ramadan fast), I was interrogated alone in the middle of the night. The interrogation continued for around four hours until about 2:30 a.m. without the presence of an embassy representative. That is when they confiscated my mobile phone so I was without communication after this.

It was clear that they simply didn’t want me covering Tawergha-related issues. I was the only journalist they detained. They held me for three days. My Libyan interpreter was released after the first day. I fully respect the sovereign laws of Libya and understand the need to comply with them, however you can’t go around locking up journalists just because you don’t like what they are reporting.

I was interrogated again on the Sunday. A British embassy representative came to assist.

It is important to note that I was not mistreated physically. They made sure I had food and juice and kept asking me if I needed anything. It’s also somewhat reassuring that there did appear to be some kind of process happening and paperwork was being done. However the fact that was I detained in the first place and for so long, is very concerning.

I am very grateful for the assistance of the British Embassy in Libya and the intervention of the Foreign Ministry. After I was released into the care of the British Embassy, they gave me my camera bag and my papers back. But I later found that the SSC had removed my camera and my personal hard drives from the bag.

The Supreme Security Committee wanted to confiscate all of the footage I had filmed at IDP camps, not just the footage from Janzour. I had no choice but to agree. When it was discovered that my tapes had been accidentally destroyed, although it was not of my doing, the SSC threatened to arrest me at the airport the next day.

This was extremely concerning. In the event, I was not arrested and I arrived in London later the same day, 24 July. As a freelance filmmaker, I can ill afford to replace my equipment and I just want to get my camera and hard drives back. The Foreign Ministry is probably under the wrong assumption that they were returned to me and I’m sure they would be very alarmed to hear my equipment was not in fact returned to me.

Foreign journalists are not the only ones to be harassed by the Supreme Security Committee. Reporters Without Borders has learned that the SSC’s Second Brigade summoned Al-Assema TV managing director Nabil Shebani on 25 August for questioning in connection with its coverage of the destruction of the Al-Sha’ab mosque in Tripoli.

Shebani said he was held for about 10 hours but insisted that that the length of his detention was due to the initial absence of officials competent to question him. Two of the station’s journalists were also briefly questioned, he added.

Several Sufi shrines were vandalized from 23 to 26 August. On 23 August it was the tomb of Sidi Abdul-Salam Al-Asmar Al-Fituri in Zliten. On 25 August, it was Sheikh Ahmed Al-Zarruq’s mausoleum near Misrata and the Al-Sha’ab mosque in Tripoli.

The authorities subsequently ordered their complete demolition. SSC personnel tried to prevent journalists from covering the demolition of the Al-Sha’ab mosque and behaved very aggressively towards journalists who tried to approach the site.

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