Col Muammar Gaddafi has launched a fierce attack on the Internet as the country teeters on the brink of civil war. The mainstream media have long been under his control and now the regime is trying to completely stifle the news in a bid to crush the revolt and the reporting of its repression.
Progress begun in 2007 reversed since 2010
The regime began to increase civil liberties in 2007 but they are now shrinking. Oea and Quryana, the first privately-owned newspapers founded then by Gaddafi’s son Seif Al-Islam’s firm Al-Ghad, have been closed.
Foreign-based independent news websites such as Libya Al-Youm, Al-Manara, Jeel Libya, Akhbar Libya, Libya Al-Mustakbal and Libya Watanna were blocked inside Libya on 24 January 2010. Access to YouTube was also blocked then after videos were posted there of protests in Benghazi by families of inmates killed in Abu Salim prison in 1996, as well as pictures of Gaddafi’s family at parties, according to Human Rights Watch.
The authorities have hounded journalists critical of the regime, especially when the criticism was posted online. Two of them, news website contributors Atef Al-Atrash and Khalid Mohair, were arrested in July last year for reporting administrative and financial corruption. The same day, journalist Mohamed Suraiti was questioned by the Benghazi prosecutor for posting on Al-Jazeera Online and elsewhere news of sexual harassment at a clinic in the city.
Stifling dissent at all cost
From the start of the uprisings in Tunisia and then Egypt, Col Gaddafi understood the dangers of them spreading to Libya. Calls for demonstrations in Libya were made on Facebook as the overthrow of the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators became known there and access to social network sites has been very erratic since mid-February.
Writer and political commentator Jamal al-Hajji, who called online for peaceful protests for freedom in Libya, was arrested on 1 February by plainclothes state security police, according to Amnesty International.
When the Libyan uprising began on 16 February, state security police picked up the director of local news site Irasa, Taqi Al-Din Al-Chalawi, and its editor, Abdel Fattah Bourwaq, according to the daily paper Libya Al-Youm. The same day, blogger Mohammed Al-Ashim Masmari was arrested and his computer seized after he reported on the demonstrations for several Arabic-language satellite TV stations, including the BBC and Al-Jazeera.
Al-Jazeera has been officially excluded from the cable TV network but can still be received by satellite. To combat the unrest, regime media launched a campaign against those who it said were “cheapening the blood of martyrs,” according to the Arabic-language news site Shaffaf. The authorities also prevented journalists moving freely around the country.
The international media were virtually absent from the country and at the start the new media played a key part in the protests as the only ones able to report what happened and the regime’s brutal reaction. For several days, amateur videos posted online were the only pictures available before foreign journalists managed to get into the country.
The regime seriously disrupted the Internet, slowing it down or cutting it off completely, to restrict the posting of compromising photos and videos and prevent protesters organising online. It has been cut off completely several times since 18 February, according to the Internet security firms Arbor Networks and Renesys. Traffic has resumed afterwards but Internet has been disconnected again since the evening of 3 March. The leading Internet Service Provider, whose owner is none other than Mohamed Gaddafi, one of Muammar Gaddafi’s sons, cooperated to the regime’s demands. All fixed and mobile phone lines were cut off on 21 February and remain very unreliable.
The regime is meanwhile trying to use new technology to get its voice heard and to rally support. It sent out text-messages urging people not to demonstrate, though sometimes with contradictions. British teacher William Bauer, who was repatriated from Benghazi, told the French news site Rue89 that the telecoms operator Al-Madar sent a text-message on 21 February saying that nothing was happening in Libya, but that protesters were drugged.
Libyan Internet-users have tweeted their revolution and tried their best to get out news of the regime’s abuses and its use of mercenaries.
At the beginning, when the flow of refugees was not very big, some netizens crossed into Egypt to post online videos and photos taken with mobile phones. Others tweeted news about the supply convoys arriving in the country.
The activist hacker group Anonymous provided Libyan netizens with tools to get round the censorship and some of its members reportedly managed to set up illegal parallel networks. The group also helped people to pass on photos and videos. “We want to tell the world about the horror in Libya,” one member told the French weekly Nouvel Observateur. “We’re passing on pictures of burned and mutilated bodies. It’s a bloodbath. Tripoli is a slaughterhouse."
The outcome of the Libyan crisis is increasingly uncertain, with the regime apparently ready to use unlimited violence against the rebels. The United Nations has denounced its actions as “crimes against humanity.” The attempts to stifle news and disrupt the Internet may give the regime a chance to crush the uprising ferociously and in secret.