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The company al-Ghad on 20 August 2007 obtained permission to launch two newspapers, Oea and Quryana, along with a satellite television channel al-Libeyya. This decision that created Libya’s first privately owned media gave rise to serious hopes and expectations within the population, and that despite the fact that the company is controlled by Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, one of Muammar Gaddafi’s three sons. These media were permitted greater freedom of expression than state run media.
Further, on 22 November 2008, Agence France-Presse was finally allowed to open a bureau in the capital Tripoli with a foreign journalist given official accreditation as its permanent correspondent. And on 23 February 2009, al-Ghad announced that permission had been given for 90 Arab and other foreign publications to be sold again in Libya, breaking a 25-year ban on such sales.
Even though there were many positive changes in recent years, most of them promoted by Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, the new openness did not last. The nationalisation of al-Libeyya television in June 2009, as well as the new channel al-Wasat, signalled the start of a claw back by the authorities, even if it was possible to read articles critical of this decision in Oea. In January 2010, Oea and Quryana, both ceased publication after the General Press Authority banned them from printing on the pretext of non-payment of certain bills. These titles have since then continued to appear online.
Elsewhere, although independent news websites based abroad such as Libya al-Yum, al-Manara and Jeel Libya, have long been accessible in Libya, and their correspondents allowed to work in the country, the authorities in January 2010 began censoring the Internet, by blocking YouTube as of 24 January. This decision followed the posting of videos of demonstrations by the families of prisoners in the city of Benghazi, and of footage of members of Muammar Gaddafi’s family attending parties. Other independent opposition websites were also blocked on 24 January 2010. A protest campaign has been launched on FaceBook, by Libyan netizens, journalists and human rights activists with the aim of getting the sites accessible again.
The authorities have also recently set up a new regulatory body (Niyaba As-Sihafa) responsible for monitoring journalists who produce reports and investigations into corruption cases in Libya.
Four journalists working for the Radio Benghazi programme ‘Massaa al-Kheir Benghazi’ (Good evening Benghazi) were arrested as a result on 16 February 2010. They were released the following day. Their programme specialises in exposing official and economic corruption in the city of Benghazi . The journalists also focus on politically sensitive issues such as the Abu Salim prison massacre in June 1996. The radio’s director, who took the programme off air, dismissed the four journalists and banned them from the radio’s premises.
Article 13 of the 1969 Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression but “within the limits of public interest and the principles of the Revolution”. The 1972 press law is also very restrictive. And Article 178 of the criminal law provides for life prison sentences for any spreading of news or information that could “tarnish the country’s reputation or undermine confidence in it abroad”. Article 207 stipulates the death penalty for “whoever spreads within the country, by whatever means, theories or principles aiming to change the basic principles of the Constitution or the fundamental structures of the social system or to overthrow the state’s political, social or economic structures or destroy any of the fundamental structures of the social system using violence, terrorism or any other unlawful means.”
Reform of the criminal code has been on the cards since 2003, with the latest draft produced in 2009. While it does involve a certain number of improvements, it still includes many measures that considerably restrict press freedom. These measures conflict with Libya’s international obligations since it signed up to seven international treaties on the protection of human rights.
In a speech made in August 2007, Seif al-Islam Gaddafi clearly spelled out the four “red lines” not to be crossed in freedom of expression: 1) the application of Islamic law, the Koran and its obligations, 2) the security and stability of Libya, 3) the territorial integrity of the country, and 4) Muammar Gaddafi. Seif al-Islam Gaddafi stressed several times that no red lines applied to his person, but judges are left to freely interpret their scope.
This repressive grip necessarily fosters a considerable degree of self-censorship among journalists.
Reporters Without Borders still has no information about the investigation into the disappearance of journalist Abdullah Ali al-Sanussi al-Darrat since his imprisonment in 1973.
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