Attacks on the Press 2009: Libya

Top Developments
•  Regime pursues defamation cases in Morocco and other countries.
•  Qaddafi nationalizes the nation’s sole private television station.

Key Statistic
3: Moroccan newspaper ordered to pay damages for “injuring the dignity” of Col. Muammar Qaddafi.

Col. Muammar Qaddafi marked in September the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought him to power and led to the eradication of human rights and the assassination and enforced disappearance of hundreds of critics, including journalists. The government has used softer tactics of repression in recent years in keeping with its efforts to rehabilitate Qaddafi’s international image, but it has maintained a tight grip on the news media.


Main Index
• Regional Analysis:
Human rights coverage spreads despite government pushback
Country Summaries
Israel, Occupied Palestinian Territories
Other developments

“They’ve realized that routinely harassing journalists … achieves the same goal without causing any public outcry,” said Omar al-Keddi, a Radio Netherlands journalist and a Libyan who was forced into exile 10 years ago. Al-Jazeera and human rights defenders cited a spate of defamation cases filed in early year by the office of the press prosecutor, an agency assigned specifically to investigate purported news media offenses. Although no journalist was in prison in late year, harassment appeared to be the government’s strategy. CPJ sources said the prosecutor’s office has made a practice of summoning journalists for questioning multiple times, often forcing them to travel many miles on short notice. In February, more than 60 academics and journalists joined in a petition denouncing the “judicial harassment,” news reports said.

The regime continued to be aggressive in pursuing prosecutions of critical journalists based in other autocratic countries. In the spring, the Libyan Embassy in Rabat persuaded Moroccan prosecutors to file defamation charges against three newspapers in that country. The Moroccan papers had published critical stories about Qaddafi’s rise to power, his Green Book political treatise, and the 2008 arrests of family members in an assault case.

In June, a Casablanca court ordered Al-Massae, Al-Jarida al-Oula, and Al-Ahdath al-Maghrebia each to pay fines of 100,000 dirhams (US$12,500) and damages of 1 million dirhams (US$125,200) for “injuring the dignity” of the Libyan leader. Moroccan courts are noted for a lack of independence and a susceptibility to political influence, CPJ research shows. Qaddafi’s support of Morocco’s claim of sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara, Libyan investments in
Morocco, and the presence of hundreds of thousands of Moroccan workers in Libya were among the factors that likely affected the court decision, CPJ sources said.

The verdict prompted outrage among press and human rights groups. “This was a freedom of opinion case,” one defense lawyer, Hassan Semlali, told CPJ. “There is no defamation at all. Qaddafi used all of his weight to muzzle three dailies at the same time.” Libya has a history of pushing defamation cases in countries where it can get a sympathetic ear. The regime pursued legal actions against Egyptian journalists in 2004 and 2007, against an Algerian daily in 2006, and against a Moroccan editor in 2004. 

Qaddafi’s intolerance of any level of critical journalism was reflected by the regime’s sudden decision in April to nationalize the Al-Ghad media group, which had launched Al-Libiya, the country’s first private television station. Established in 2007 by Qaddafi’s son, Sayf al-Islam, the Al-Ghad group also encompassed the newspapers Oea and Cyrene and two radio stations.  

State-run media gave no reason for the decision, but independent news outlets said the satellite broadcaster Al-Libiya was about to air a report on the regime’s use of torture and its persecution of dissidents. Egyptian authorities had also complained about critical on-air remarks made by commentator Hamdi Kandil, journalists told CPJ. Al-Libiya and the two radio stations were brought under the state-run Jamahiriya Broadcasting Corporation and the two dailies under the Public Press Foundation. 

Creation of the Al-Ghad media outlets was initially seen as a public relations ploy intended to improve the regime’s global image and promote Sayf al-Islam Qaddafi as a reformer. But the outlets hired professional and independent-minded journalists and tackled important (and otherwise ignored) social issues in critical ways. Libyan journalists said the Al-Ghad outlets appeared to have had support among reform-minded people in the regime, but were ultimately toppled by the reactionary elements that have long urged iron-fisted press policies. Al-Ghad journalists were among those summoned for interrogation by government prosecutors, according to the Libyan League for Human Rights, a group of exiled academics and writers.  

OpenNet Initiative, an academic collaboration that studies online censorship, said the regime conducts selective filtering of online political content. In a report published in August 2009, OpenNet also noted that “a number of independent and pro-opposition Web sites were found to be sporadically hacked and defaced, and their content replaced with pro-Libyan leader content.” Blogs were few in number and tended to focus on culture and literature rather than politics, OpenNet said. 

The Libyan League for Human Rights offered an important reminder of the regime’s brutally repressive history. On World Press Freedom Day, the organization released a list of reporters who had been murdered or who had disappeared over the past four decades. The list of “journalists who lost their lives for ethically doing their job” included Daif al-Gahzal al-Shuhaibi. His disfigured body was found in the suburbs of Benghazi on June 2, 2005, about two weeks after he was reported missing, according to several sources. A former state media employee, he had recently begun writing online articles describing official corruption. To date, no credible and transparent inquiry into al-Ghazal’s death has been conducted. In July 2007, news reports quoted al-Ghazal’s family as saying that a Tripoli court sentenced three unidentified men to death for the murder. But independent journalists noted that no official details were ever released about the supposed prosecution, and that al-Ghazal’s family might have been pressured by authorities to make their statement.