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Libya: Closure of private news agency confirms fears on the limits of press freedom

    December 08, 2010

    Amnesty International is concerned that the decision to close Libya Press, the only privately owned news agency in Libya, is the latest in a rising series of government attacks on the privately-owned press, and risks further narrowing the Libyan media landscape and the scope of freedom of expression. On 7 December, the Libya Press agency, an outlet of the al-Ghad corporation affiliated with Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader, announced that it had decided to close its Tripoli office due to “ security harrassment” and its inability to protect its correspondents in Libya. According to the Libya Press agency, the decision was taken after security agencies told the leadership of the al-Ghad corporation that the “presence” of the Libya Press agency inside Libya “was not desirable.”

    These developments come in the aftermath of a crackdown on privately-owned media, which saw the suspension of the print version of Oea, a weekly paper also owned by the al-Ghad corporation, and the arrests of some 22 journalists and media workers on 4 and 5 November 2010 by members of the Internal Security Agency (ISA). According to Oea, the authorities suspended its publication because of an opinion piece it had published criticising government incompetence and corruption.

    The arrested journalists were released without charge on 8 November following the intervention of Libya’s leader, Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi. However, according to the Libya Press agency, they were verbally warned by security officials “not to return to work”.

    This escalating harassment of privately-owned media outlets stands in sharp contrast with the Libyan government’s rhetorical assertions that press freedom is respected. In its national report to the UN Human Rights Council ahead of that body’s Universal Period Review of Libya, submitted in August 2010, the Libyan government asserted: “press in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya is free and uncensored other than by journalistic conscience”. Yet following the review, which took place on 9 November 2010, the Libyan authorities publicly rejected recommendations to amend provisions within the Penal Code criminalizing activities that amount to no more than the legitimate exercize of freedom of expression and association.

    The contradiction between the Libyan state’s public endorsement of human rights and the reality in practice was also reflected in a statement issued by Libya’s official National Human Rights Committee on 4 December 2010 under the title: “Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch ignore the level of progress in human rights in Libya”. The statement, issued in response to a joint press release issued by the two organizations on 17 November which urged the Libyan government to carry out much needed reforms, sought to defend Libya’s human rights record. In relation to freedom of expression, the National Human Rights Committee suggested that Libyans “have the right to express their opinions publicly and through various media outlets without censorship and without any sanction” – an assertion which rings particularly hollow at a time of attacks against privately-owned media.

    Amnesty International is urging the Libyan authorities to uphold their obligations to respect the right to freedom of expression and to take the steps necessary to make media freedom a reality. As a first step, they must amend the Penal Code provisions and other legislation that criminalize peaceful expression and the right to freedom of association, and take practical steps to rein in the security forces and to ensure that all people in Libya, including journalists, can exercize their right to freedom of expression without fear of reprisals.

    As recent arrests and harassment of journalists have shown, the ISA continues to wield extensive and unchecked powers to arrest, detain and interrogate those deemed to be critics of the government, state institutions and officials, or to pose a security threat. It is high time that this agency, in particular, was brought under effective judicial oversight and that its officials’ powers to exercize functions of the judicial police are removed.

    Background

    Amnesty International continues to be concerned that the rights to freedom of expression and media freedom remain severely restricted in Libya, including by the Penal Code. Public forms of expression, including within the Peoples’ Congresses and most print and broadcast media, continued to be tightly controlled. Article 1 of Law No. 76 of 1972 on Publications allows freedom of expression, but only insofar as it falls “within the framework of the principles, values and objectives of society”. Along with Law No. 120 of 1972 on the establishment of the General Press Authority and Law No. 75 of 1973 on merging some newspapers to the General Press Authority, Law No. 76 of 1972 imposes severe restrictions on the freedom of the press, effectively preventing the formation of independent newspapers.

    The media landscape broadened significantly with the establishment of two privately-owned newspapers in August 2007: Oea and Cerene. However, while they broach some issues deemed sensitive by the authorities, such as official corruption, they cannot be considered fully independent as they are closely affiliated with Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi. In January 2010, the two newspapers announced that they would no longer be printed but only appear online. It was alleged that the General Press Authority refused to print them because the al-Ghad corporation had not paid its debts. Oea later reported that the suspension was as the result of a “story which later proved to be true”. On 3 November, the Oea weekly print version, also owned by the al-Ghad corporation, was suspended by Secretary of the General People’s Committee (equivalent of Prime Minister) Al-Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmoudi. According to the Libya Press agency, it became the first independent news agency in Libya after it had obtained official authorization in January 2010.

    John Tackaberry,
    Media Relations,
    Amnesty International Canada
    613-744-7667, ext 236