A soldier loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar sits outside the Zueitina oil terminal, west of Benghazi, Libya, September 15, 2016. (Reuters/Esam Omran Al-Fetori)
A soldier loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar sits outside the Zueitina oil terminal, west of Benghazi, Libya, September 15, 2016. (Reuters/Esam Omran Al-Fetori)

Libyan TV journalist arrested without charge

Washington, D.C., January 25, 2017–Libyan security forces should charge or release Wiem Ben Zabia, a cameraman for the Libya Panorama Channel (LPC), the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Security forces detained Ben Zabia at a checkpoint near the eastern Libyan city of Derna on January 14, according to his employer, sister, and a video of the incident.

The security forces were under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, the head of the armed forces of the internationally recognized government in Tobruk. LPC is frequently critical of Haftar.

Ben Zabia’s sister, Gehan, told CPJ she learned of her brother’s arrest when she saw a video recording of the incident at the Ras Lahlel checkpoint near Derna on social media websites and on the pro-Haftar satellite broadcaster Libya’s Channel. She said neither she nor his employer had been able to locate him since. The video shows a man in civilian clothing interrogating Ben Zabia about any links to terrorists he might have in the area. The man told Ben Zabia that he would get a fair judicial process, and that he would be freed if no evidence was found against him.

“If Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar’s security forces have any credible evidence that Wiem Ben Zabia is guilty of any crime save working for a TV channel that has criticized Haftar, let them produce it immediately and allow him access to a lawyer and his family, or free him without delay,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour. “We call on all parties in Libya to allow journalists to work and travel freely and without fear of reprisal.”

Omar Abdel Fattah, the head of LPC’s social media department, told CPJ that Ben Zabia was arrested without charge simply because security forces found his LPC identification card as the journalist passed through a checkpoint on the way into Derna, his hometown, where he planned to attend a relative’s funeral.

“He was not on an assignment. He doesn’t even work for us outside the studio,” Abdel Fattah said. “We tried to reach those who arrested him to inquire about any possible charges against him, but received no response.”

In a January 16 statement, the advocacy group the Libyan Center for Freedom of the Press called Ben Zabia’s arrest politically motivated. “His only charge is that he worked with an outlet that opposes the political position of those arresting him,” the statement said.

Haftar supporters on social media accused LPC of being a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood and called Ben Zabia a terrorist. Abdel Fattah and Gehan Ben Zabia denied both allegations.

“He is a peaceful man who has lived in Tripoli since 2013,” Gehan Ben Zabia said of her brother.

Despite a long siege and continuing air strikes, Haftar’s forces have been unable to take control of Derna from the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council, an alliance of local militias that in April 2016 wrested the city from the control of the Islamic State group’s affiliate in Libya, according to news reports.