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17 February 2010
Brief arrest of media workers reflects increase in attacks on freedom of expression in Libya
Amnesty International welcomes the release today of four employees of the “Good Evening Benghazi” radio programme who were arrested yesterday after their programme was taken off the air on 14 February 2010. They were freed apparently after the intervention of Saif al- Islam al-Gaddafi, a son of the Libyan leader.
Amnesty International is urging the Libyan authorities to lift the suspension of “Good Evening Benghazi” and its employees and ensure that they and other media workers are freely able to exercise their right to freedom of expression without fear of harassment or arrest. Those arrested were Muftah al-Kibaili, general supervisor of the “Good Evening Benghazi” programme, and three other staff members - Suleiman al-Kibaili, Khaled Ali and Ahmed Al-Maksabi. All four were arrested at about 8 PM on the evening of 16 February outside the radio station in Benghazi’s Abd al-Min’im Riyad street, apparently after the head of the radio station complained that they had entered the building despite being banned from its premises. According to news sources, they were arrested under an order issued by the Secretary of the General People’s Committee for Public Security by security agents who arrived in several cars.
Two days earlier, the head of the radio station is reported to have told Muftah al-Kibaili and Suleiman al-Kibaili that they were being suspended.
On 16 February, journalist Ahmed Khalifa, another staff member, was prevented from entering the studio to present the programme. Until then, “Good Evening Benghazi” had been broadcast nightly and had reported on a range of social issues of wide public interest, such as increasing poverty and unemployment, health care, marriage and local services. As well, it broached on some subjects deemed sensitive by the Libyan authorities, including alleged corruption in the administration of justice and the incident at Tripoli’s Abu Salim Prison in 1996, when hundreds of prisoners are believed to have been killed by the security forces in circumstances that, more than 13 years on, the authorities have yet to clarify. The Abu Salim case is of particular interest in Benghazi, where families of victims have been vocal in demanding for truth, justice and adequate reparation.
These latest arrests of media workers are not the first time that “Good Evening Benghazi” has been targeted by the authorities. Lawyer ‘Adnan el-‘Urfi was arrested on 9 June 2009 after a “Good Evening Benghazi” broadcast in late May 2009 in which he reportedly said that the rule of law is not respected in Libya and recounted human rights violations endured by one of his clients. He was accused of insulting a public official, but cleared all the charges by a court in Benghazi on 12 September 2009. According to Libya Al-Youm online newspaper, “Good Evening Benghazi” programme presenter Ahmed Khalifa was called in for questioning by the public prosecutor’s office in Benghazi on 11 June 2009 in relation to statements made by ‘Adnan el-‘Urfi.
“Good Evening Benghazi” was also reported to have come close to suspension in November 2008 after a member of the public called the programme and criticized protests in support of Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi after he announced that he was to retire from pubic life.
The arrest of the four members of the “Good Evening Benghazi” programme comes at a time when freedom of expression and access to information have been dealt a heavy blow in Libya. Since 24 January, a number of websites based abroad which showcase material critical of the Libyan authorities or tackle sensitive issues such as the government’s human rights record, have been blocked by the authorities. Additionally, YouTube is no longer accessible from Libya. It features information on the Abu Salim 1996 prison incident, as well as videos of members of Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi’s family. On 21 January, two newspapers Oea and Cyrene, owned by Al-Ghad Media Corporation, a private Libyan company associated with Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, announced that they will no longer be published but only appear online. It was reported that the General Press Commission will no longer print them because of the Al-Ghad Media Corporation’s failure to pay its debts.
The right to freedom of expression is tightly restricted in Libya in both law and practice. Article 1 of Law No. 76 of 1972 on Publications allows freedom of expression, but only insofar as it falls “within the framework of the principles, values and objectives of society” and imposes severe restrictions on the freedom of the press and broadcast media. A number of provisions in the Libyan Penal Code severely limit the right to freedom of expression and have been used to repress those suspected of being opposed to or critical of the current political system.
Journalists, families of victims of human rights violations, political activists and other who criticize the authorities or seek to organize meetings or demonstrations to protest against the government risk arrest and other forms of intimidation and harassment. For instance, writer Jamal al-Haji has been detained in Jdeida Prison in Tripoli since 9 December 2009. He is facing charges of insulting the judiciary following a complaint he had written to the Secretary of the General People’s Committee for Justice (effectively, Libya’s minister of justice) about his alleged ill-treatment when he was detained from February 2007 to March 2009 for seeking to organize a protest. Another prisoner of conscience, Abdelnasser al-Rabbasi, is currently serving a 15 year sentence in Abu Salim Prison for “undermining the prestige of the Leader of the revolution” after having written an email critical of Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi to the Arab Times newspaper.