The regime is trying to improve its international reputation but the press freedom situation remains grim.
Libya was elected president of the UN Human Rights Commission on 20 January 2003 and Reporters Without Borders activists protested at what they considered the absurdity of such a presidency by throwing leaflets in the conference hall as the Libyan chair, Najat Al-Hajjaji, was making her inaugural speech at the Commission’s 59th session in Geneva on 17 March. Several member-states, including Libya, formally complained and in July the press freedom organisation was banned for a year from attending meetings of the Commission, with which it had consultative status.
Another key development was the UN Security Council’s lifting on 12 September of 15 years of UN sanctions against Libya for the 1988 explosion and crash of a US airliner over Lockerbie (Scotland) after Libya paid demanded compensation to the families of the Americans who died. A three-year broadcasting agreement was signed with Spain on 19 September, but the written and broadcast media remains under the regime’s tight control, accompanied by a strict social control that discourages freedom of expression. Visas for foreign journalists are rarely granted. Only the Internet and satellite TV are allowed as a window to the outside world.
Reporters Without Borders has had no news of journalist Abdullah Ali al-Sanussi al-Darrat, who was imprisoned in 1973 without being charged or tried.
Harassment and obstruction
Six foreign journalists - one from the French TV station I-Télévision, a photographer from the French news agency Agence France-Presse, two journalists of the British paper The Sunday Times, an American freelance and an Israeli-American freelance - arrived in Tripoli on 4 January 2003 to cover the story of Tecca Zendik, a young American who came third in the Miss Networld contest held in Libya in November 2002.
At the award ceremony, she had wept when Col. Gaddafi criticised the United States. To make amends, he invited her to return to Libya in early January to receive a Libyan passport and appointment as honorary Libyan consul in the US.
Libyan officials refused to allow the Israeli-American journalist, Daphne Barak (a cousin of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak), to enter the country when she presented her Israeli passport and she was deported the next day. When the AFP photographer said he wanted to leave the country a day earlier than scheduled, he was told he would have to wait.
"They threatened us and kept us against our will," said the I-Télévision journalist, Patrice Vanoni, who also wanted to leave early. Unidentified civilians told them their passports, which had been taken on arrival, would not be returned until the film footage and photographs they had taken of Barak’s arrival at the airport had been destroyed.
"When we said we’d complain to the French embassy that we were being held hostage, they arranged a short meeting with Col. Gaddafi for us," said Vanoni. After the film and photos had been destroyed, they got their passports back.
A revolutionary court shut down the official daily Al-Zahf Al-Akhdar (The Green March) indefinitely on 13 October for "undermining national interests and policies" by criticising and insulting several Arab countries. The paper, mouthpiece of the country’s "revolutionary committees," said Bahrain could not be called "a state, a half-state or even a quarter-state" and that Kuwait was "a geographical error that had not been corrected."
The paper was suspended at a very tense moment in relations between Libya and other Arab states. Col. Gaddafi had announced on 4 October he was breaking off relations with them and asked the country’s grassroots people’s assemblies to approve Libya’s withdrawal from the Arab League. He also said Arabs were not even human beings. One of Kuwait’s deputy prime ministers was quoted in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai Al-Am that Kadhafi would "go to hell."