New York, November 8, 2018–The Committee to Protect Journalists today called on authorities in the Libyan city of Ajilat to end their persecution of freelance journalist Mukhtar al-Halak, who is due in court on November 12 on charges of criminal defamation and publishing state security secrets.
Members of the security directorate in the western city of Ajilat arrested al-Halak on October 11, after lodging a defamation complaint against the journalist, the Libyan Center for Freedom of the Press and the Libyan Journalists’ Independent Syndicate told CPJ. The complaint relates to al-Halak’s coverage of allegations of government corruption, Reda al-Hani, co-founder of the Libyan Journalists’ Independent Syndicate, told CPJ.
The security directorate is backed by Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), the U.N.-recognized government that controls the western region of Libya, and operates under the Ministry of Interior.
Al-Halak told CPJ on November 7 that the directorate accused him of defamation over an article he wrote on Facebook about the disappearance of vehicles the directorate received from the Ministry of Interior. He said the directorate also accused him of publishing state secrets after the journalist posted an image of a telegram between Libyan security forces who were anticipating an Islamic State attack on a petroleum complex.
If convicted, al-Halak faces a maximum sentence of one year in prison, Ameen Ahmed, a member of the Libyan Center for Freedom of the Press, told CPJ.
“Authorities in Ajilat should immediately cease their persecution of freelance journalist Mukhtar al-Halak and drop all charges against him,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour in Washington, D.C. “Taking legal action against a journalist who reported on issues of national importance is an unacceptable response, in this case from a government backed by the U.N.”
Al-Halak told CPJ he was arrested at the security directorate’s office after being invited to cover a meeting there. The journalist said that the officers verbally abused him while he was being questioned. While detained in an Ajilat police station, al-Halak took pictures of the squalid conditions, which were shared by Libyan Facebook users.
Authorities detained al-Halak until October 22, when he was released on bail of 300 Libyan dinars (US$218), according to the Libyan Center for Freedom of the Press.
When contacted by CPJ through Facebook, Ajilat’s security directorate said it could not comment on the case via electronic correspondence and said it could provide comment only in person at its offices.
Al-Halak works as a freelance journalist, providing photography and video footage for various Libyan news outlets, al-Hani told CPJ. He was a photographer for Alassema TV in Ajilat, until the channel stopped broadcasting in 2014. Al-Halak also reports on corruption, Ahmed, from the Libyan Center for Freedom of the Press, told CPJ. The journalist posted most of his reports and commentary on a private Facebook profile. In Ajilat, Facebook users often re-posted local news reports from al-Halak’s profile.
Authorities have previously harassed the journalist. Al-Hani said that the Ajilat Education Office submitted two defamation complaints against him on February 27, 2017 over his coverage of a teacher’s strike and reporting on alleged corruption by the Education Office.
The journalist told CPJ the complaints were withdrawn after documents proving the Education Office’s corruption emerged.