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(New York) - Libya's moves in late January, 2010, to block access to at least seven independent and opposition Libyan web sites based abroad and to YouTube is a disturbing step awayfrom press freedom, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should restore web site access immediately, Human Rights Watch said.

 "These web sites were the one recent sign of tangible progress in freedom ofexpression in Libya," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, "The government is returning to the dark days of total media control."

On January 24, Libyans woke to find that they could no longer access independent and opposition Libyan web sites based abroad,such as Libya Al Youm, Al Manara, Jeel Libya, Akhbar Libya,and Libya Al Mostakbal, which had become major sources of news. With editors based abroad and journalists in Tripoli and Benghazi,these web sites regularly publish news on sensitive political subjects,including human rights abuses by the Libyan government. In its December 2009report, "Truth and Justice Can't Wait," Human Rights Watch pointed to their availability and the ability of their journalists to operate out of Libya as tentative signs of expanded press freedom.

In addition, the entire YouTube web site is no longer available in Libya. It recently featured videos of demonstrations in Benghazi by families of prisoners who were killed in Abu Salim prison in 1996, which the authorities have never investigated, as well as videos of family members of Mu'ammar al-Gaddafi, Libya'sleader, at parties.

A group of Libyan bloggers, journalists, and rights defenders have started anonline campaign on Facebook, called "No to the Policy of Blocking Websites in Libya," and haveshared proxy servers to allow access to the blocked web sites. A Libyan blogger,Gaida El Tawati, told Human Rights Watch that the group had submitted acomplaint to the Gaddafi Foundation's Human Rights Society and to LTT, the main internet service provider in Libya. Editors of the blocked websites have said that people in Libya are still accessing their websites through proxies, but that access has decreased.

"Libya can stick its head in the sand and try to block the free flow of electronic information to its citizens, but the goodnews is we all know they'll fail," said Whitson. "Whether in China or Saudi Arabia or Libya, citizens will always find ways to exchange knowledge and information, with or without their government's consent."

In another move, on January 21, the country's only two private newspapers, Oea and Quryna, announced that they would appear online only, following a decision by the General Press Authority to refuse to continue printing them for what it said were financial reasons. The suspension of print-runs for the country's two private papers raises serious concerns about access to independent information in the country. Mohamed Be'yu, the director of the General Press Authority, told Al Jazeera on January 21 that  it would no longer print the two private newspapers because of the failure of Al Ghad, the company that owns the papers, to pay a debt of 3 million Libyan Dinars (US $2.4 million) in printing costs.   

In a January 23 statement, the General Press Authority said it would continue to "support" Oea and Quryna despite the many "professional and substantive deviances" that it said characterized their work, but would not print the papers because of the supposed debt. It did not make public any information about whether the newspapers dispute this debt, how long the alleged debt has been owed, or any attempts to resolve the financial dispute.

However, the National Organization for Libyan Youth, an organization affiliated with Al Ghad, strongly criticized the decision in a January 27 statement, saying that the General Press Authority'sclaims of debt and financial trouble were untrue. It said the reason the Press Authority had refused to continue printing Oea and Quryna was because of the "unauthorized" news Oeahad printed, saying that Mohamed Al Zawwi, a close associate of the Libyan leader, would take over the General People's Congress, Libya's nominal governing body.  

In what appears to be a partial resolution of the situation, on February 3, Mahmoud Bousifi, the editor of Oea, toldHuman Rights Watch that they would resume printing smaller sections of the newspaper next week.

The Al Ghad company, a private Libyan company closely affiliated with Saifal-Islam al-Gaddafi, the Libyan leader's son, started publishing Oea andQuryna in August 2007. They are the first privately owned newspapers in Libya since Gaddafi came to power. The newspapers have reported about corruption, the lack of independence of the judiciary, and demonstrations by families of prisoners killed in the Abu Salim massacre.  In November, Oea published an interview with Justice Secretary Mostafa Abdel jelil in which he criticized the security services for failing to respect the rule of law, saying that there were "more than 500 prisoners who were acquitted by courts in June 2008 and are yet to be released."

"Libyan authorities should be increasing the number of private newspapers rather than stopping their circulation," Whitson said. "It's hard for anyone to believe that the government has stopped printing these newspapers because of the relatively minor financial debt it claims, and not because of the content."

Blocking access to web sites and restricting newspaper publishing violates Libya's obligations under international law, Human Rights Watch said. Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, ratified by Libya in 1986, guarantees that, "[e]very individual shall have the right to receive information," and that "every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law."

As party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Libya is obliged under Article 19 to ensure the right to "seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, inwriting or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice." Blocking access to web sites that provide content critical of the government is not a legitimate limitation on the right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.

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