Despite Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi’s recent pro-democracy pretensions, his regime still keeps a very tight rein on news. Local journalists have very little room for manoeuvre and self-censorship is the rule.
A Reporters Without Borders delegation visited Libya for the first time in September 2006 at the invitation of the country’s journalists’ union. The fact of the visit showed the regime’s more relaxed attitude but the press freedom situation has hardly changed. The media are still government-controlled propaganda mouthpieces that put out “positive” news about the activities of the “brotherly leader,” Col. Gaddafi. No independent media-outlet exists.
Three of the four main daily papers (Al-Jamahiriya, Al-Shams and Al-Fajr al-Jadid) are funded by the General Press Office (an arm of the information ministry) and the fourth, Al-Zahf al-Akhdar, belongs to the Movement of Revolutionary Committees, which is the regim’s backbone. Only satellite TV stations, which have lured people away from state-run stations, lighten the grim picture.
Few journalists dare to venture beyond the limits set by the regime. Criticising Gaddafi is a taboo that can lead directly to prison because of the prevailing personality cult. The most the local media does is report minor corruption without ever implicating top officials. The plight of the Berber minority and anything to do with Gaddafi (“The Guide of the Revolution”) and his family are never mentioned. The press law is very harsh and allows prison sentences of up to two years.
Libyans have free access to the Internet but their activity on it is closely monitored. Journalist Daif al-Ghazal and cyber-dissident Abdel Razak al-Mansouri were punished for criticising the regime online. Al-Mansouri was given an 18-month prison sentence in October 2005 officially for “unauthorised possession of a firearm” but in fact it was almost certainly because of what he wrote on the website www.akhbar-libya.com. He was amnestied in March 2006 after a year in jail. The killers of Al-Ghazal, whose body was found on 1 June 2005 with many marks of torture, have still not been named. He had strongly criticised the regime and the Movement of Revolutionary Committees.
By the end of 2006, Reporters Without Borders still had no proof that Abdullah Ali al-Sanussi al-Darrat, who disappeared after he was jailed without charge or trial in 1973, was still alive.
The Reporters Without Borders mission noted that the Internet was no longer censored in Libya and with the release of Al-Mansouri, no cyber-dissidents remained in prison. In November, the organisation took the country off its list of “enemies of the Internet.” However, a new cyber-dissident, Idrees Mohammed Boufayed, has since been imprisoned for posting material on opposition websites.