CPJ concerned for safety of photojournalist missing in Libya

New York, November 17–The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned for the safety of Mohamed Neili, a Libyan photojournalist missing since October 29. Neili, who works for the Chinese state-run Xinhuanews agency, disappeared after leaving his house in southern Tripoli, according to media outlets and a local press freedom center.

Neighbors said they witnessed Neili being abducted near his house, according to local reports and the Libyan Center for Press Freedom, an independent local press freedom group that documents violations against the media. In Libyan media outlet reports, Neili’s neighbors said they saw him being taken away in a black car they did not recognize. The Libyan Center for Press Freedom told CPJ the photojournalist was kidnapped in his own car. Neighbors told the center that gunmen in a car stopped Neili a few blocks from his house then forced themselves into his car and drove away.

“For too long, journalists in Libya have faced a high risk of attack, including kidnapping by militias, and there has been no authority to investigate these crimes. This climate of fear and intimidation has all but shut down media coverage of the ongoing conflict,” CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said. “We call on anyone with information about Mohamed Neili’s whereabouts to come forward, and anyone holding him to release him immediately.”

The ministry of information of the Tripoli-based government, which is not internationally recognized, has called on the ministry of interior to find the journalist, according to news reports.

Ten days after his disappearance, Neili’s family received a phone call from an individual claiming to belong to a group responsible for the kidnapping, and demanding a ransom of 500,000 Libyan dinars (US$367,840), Nizar Ibrahim, the co-founder and spokesperson the Libyan press freedom group, told CPJ. The caller did not identify himself or the group he was with, Ibrahim, whose organization has spoken with the family, told CPJ. Four days later, the family received a second phone call, in which the ransom was reduced to 300,000 dinars, Ibrahim said.

Details of who abducted Neili and where he is being held are not known, Ibrahim said. Xinhuahas not reported on his disappearance and did not respond to requests for information from CPJ.

Kidnappings have become commonplace in Tripoli, as militias try to extract information from journalists and pressure them into avoiding coverage that may harm the militias’ ambitions amid fighting in the country, Ibrahim told CPJ.

The director of the Libyan Center for Press Freedom, Mahmoud al-Najm, was abducted and held for five hours by a militia in Tripoli on November 5, the group said. He has not publicized details of his abduction.

For several months, the UN has been working to broker an agreement between the internationally backed but ineffective Libyan government in the east of the country, and the government in Tripoli, which was installed by a militia known as Libya Dawn that took over the city in August 2014. Journalists and media outlets have been frequent targets of rival militias as they fight for political and territorial control throughout the country.