Impunity Risks Silencing Media
May 27, 2014
The deliberate targeting of journalists in Libya seems to have one objective: muzzling free speech and political dissent. Almost three years after Muammar Gaddafi’s fall, it’s a national tragedy that journalists still can’t express their views without fearing arrest, attack, and even death.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director

(Tripoli) – Libya’s General Prosecutor should immediately order an impartial and comprehensive investigation into the killing of a prominent editor-in-chief and hold those responsible to account. Miftah Bouzeid, editor in chief of Burniq newspaper, was shot dead in Benghazi on May 26, 2014.

The murder of Bouzeid is the second killing of a journalist in Libya this year, the first died in February, during clashes in the south, and follows assaults, kidnappings and attempted assassinations by unknown assailants of dozens of journalists and media workers in Libya since the end of the 2011 uprising. To date, authorities have not concluded investigations, if there have been any, into any of these attacks and there are no known prosecutions or arrests of perpetrators of such crimes.

“The deliberate targeting of journalists in Libya seems to have one objective: muzzling free speech and political dissent,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Almost three years after Muammar Gaddafi’s fall, it’s a national tragedy that journalists still can’t express their views without fearing arrest, attack, and even death.”

The killing of Bouzeid comes amid a general deterioration of security in Libya after a series of recent clashes, which started on May 16. Forces loyal to Khalifa Hiftar, a retired general of the Libyan army, are fighting Islamist militias he accuses of committing violations in Benghazi and elsewhere. The violence, which divided the country, has left at least 75 fighters dead in Benghazi alone, according to media reports, and has spread to Tripoli and beyond.
Bouzeid was a well-known critic of Islamist militias in Benghazi, and appeared frequently in print and on television criticizing their excesses. On May 26, Human Rights Watch conducted phone interviews with four colleagues and friends of Bouzeid in Tripoli and Benghazi.

In another conversation on May 26, an eyewitness to the incident said an unmasked male assailant shot Bouzeid dead at around 10 a.m., while he was in his parked car on the way to deliver newspapers in Benghazi, at the end of Istiklal Street (formerly Jamal Abdelnasser Street). The eyewitness said he saw the assailant in civilian clothes get out of a vehicle parked nearby and shoot at least five to seven rounds from what he believed to be an assault rifle before getting back into his car to flee. He said:

I saw the shooter, whom I did not recognize, lift his arm and fire off a round of shots at the car. He looked like any other guy in Benghazi; he was a young man, unmasked, wearing civilian clothes, and shaven. He did not have a beard like the “Islamists” usually do. It was all over very fast; it seemed to me it only took 10 seconds. Immediately after the shooting, I approached Miftah’s car together with others. Somehow, I did not expect anyone to be in the car, so I was shocked when I saw him lying there with blood on his head. It was too late by then; he was already dead.

The eyewitness said it seemed to be a well-organized and “professional” operation, as the shooter and his companions managed to commit the crime in broad daylight on a busy street without faltering. He also said he only saw the bloodied head and did not see or remember if there were any shots to the rest of the body. He said the assailant got into the back seat of a car in which he believes there were three others and sped off. He said all that neighbors could do was cover Miftah up and bring him to al-Jalaa’ Hospital.

Mohamed al-Sheikhi, an independent photojournalist in Benghazi, told Human Rights Watch during a phone call on May 26 that Bouzeid delivered copies of the newspaper himself to bookshops in Benghazi on all three days of the week when Burniq is published. He said Bouzeid was known to be an outspoken critic of Islamist militias and political factions in Libya’s parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), and appeared frequently as a commentator on different news shows. Al-Sheikhi said due to the polarization in the media and society, it was impossible to point fingers at one specific group for the murder.

Idriss al-Mesmary, head of the Directorate for the Support and Encouragement of the Press, within the Information Ministry, told Human Rights Watch he knew that Bouzeid had received many death threats, particularly in the few days preceding his killing. He thought the murder might have been precipitated by comments Bouzeid gave in an interview on private TV channel Libya al-Ahrar on May 25, in which he criticized the GNC and militias, spoke about meeting with Hiftar and discussed the general’s “Libya Dignity” campaign to “fight terrorism.”

Al-Mesmary said he believes the killing of Bouzeid to be a dangerous indicator of the extent to which Libyan journalists are targeted for what they say. His directorate regularly hears of journalists facing intimidation, death threats and physical assaults, to muzzle their voices. He said many journalists practice self-censorship: “They [perpetrators] have succeeded in silencing some journalists. Threats can come in different shapes, including the kidnapping of your child or attacks on your family. What can be worse than killing someone? It will silence you.”

According to a friend and fellow journalist, Bouzeid was born in 1965 in Derna, and worked at Quryna newspaper before the 2011 revolution. He said Bouzeid was one of the founders of Burniq newspaper and a leading critical voice. The friend said he was devastated at the death of the editor and was considering leaving his job for fear of being targeted as well.

Since the end of the 2011 uprising, Human Rights Watch has tracked dozens of killings and attacks by unknown assailants, targeting mostly members of the security forces, but also activists, journalists and members of the judiciary, in what appear to be politically motivated killings. Ibrahim al-Sanussi Agilah, head of intelligence for the eastern region, is the latest government victim. Unknown assailants shot Agilah dead on May 8 in Benghazi, while he was driving in his car. Hassan al-Bakush, a journalist with a local TV station, confirmed to Human Rights Watch he himself had survived two consecutive assassination attempts in Benghazi, on May 5 and May 7.

In addition to Gaddafi-era laws that restrict free expression, Libya’s interim legislature has passed several problematic decrees and resolutions on speech and defamation, adding to the tension of an already highly polarized and charged media sector, Human Rights Watch said.

On February 2, the GNC passed law 5/2014, which amends article 195 of the Libyan Penal Code. Anyone now found to “harm the February 17 Revolution” can be punished with imprisonment. The same punishment applies to anyone who insults a public official or the state’s logo or flag. On January 22, the GNC passed resolution 5/2014 banning satellite television stations that are critical of the government and the 2011 uprising against Gaddafi.

Both decrees violate international law provisions on free speech and Libya’s Provisional Constitutional Declaration and should be repealed, Human Rights Watch said.

Libya is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, both of which protect the right to freedom of expression.

Article 14 of the Libyan interim constitutional covenant says “the state shall ensure freedom of opinion, freedom of speech for individuals and groups, […] freedom of communication, freedom of press, media, printing and distribution […].”

The International Criminal Court has ongoing jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Libya since February 15, 2011, taking into account, among other factors, whether the Libyan authorities are willing and able to prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes.

“The state has an obligation to ensure members of the press can operate freely, without intimidation, assaults and threats,” Whitson said. “To achieve that, the government needs to investigate and prosecute crimes committed against the media.”