Nation & World

In Libya, chaos is taking a toll on freedom of press, speech

Shortly after Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was toppled in 2011, a 31-year-old activist had a tattoo put on his arm with the date marking the start of the uprising and rebranded himself a journalist.

He put down his gun and carried his cameras everywhere he went, reporting for a wire service. He captured photos of militias kidnapping police, soldiers and taking control of this city, the birthplace of the revolution. That is, until a month ago when he, too, was kidnapped for his work and held for hours, in what has become an epidemic against reporters here.

Since then, he’s stopped carrying his cameras; now he carries only a gun.

In the early days of the uprising, “Gadhafi was targeting journalists. Now it is the Islamists,” said the journalist, who asked that he not be identified for fear he’d be kidnapped again for speaking out. The day he was abducted, “they surrounded our car. They were not wearing uniforms. They were wearing long gowns and beards.”

The reasons for his kidnapping, he said, became clear within minutes: They didn’t like his dispatches. The first thing the kidnappers said was “you are a dirty Bedouin. You want federalism,” he said, a reference to the ongoing struggle here between whether Libya should have a strong central federal government or one in which regions largely govern themselves.

With government-backed militias controlling the city and no judicial system to speak of, journalists in Libya have become easy targets. Journalists seen as aligned with those who want a more liberal Libya to emerge from the post-Gadhafi period say Islamists target them, while more conservative reporters say they fall victim to those retaliating against Islamists. Many have been threatened through anonymous phone calls, though none, it appears, has been killed.

Intimidation is rampant. Reporters have become accustomed to being followed while doing their work. During a five-day stay in Benghazi, a McClatchy reporter found herself frequently shadowed as she traveled from interview to interview, or just even out for a meal. Those who grant interviews are fearful to say very much, making reporting here all the more difficult.

As one journalist explained to this reporter: “Stop trying to understand what is happening here. It will just get you killed.”

On Friday, someone detonated an explosive outside the offices of the Libyan al Hurra broadcast outlet in Benghazi, injuring a security guard. Al Hurra’s reporters are believed to be sympathizers of Islamists, and the attack on the station came just days after residents stormed the largest militia, the Libyan Shields, also suspected of backing Islamists. Al Hurra reporters assumed it was retaliation against Islamist supporters.

“People think we support certain political views. We are just reporting what happened,” said Ibrahim Salem, 24, as he surveyed the latest damage to his offices. “It is dangerous to be a journalist.”

Constitutionally, Libya is not supposed to be like this. According to Article 14 of Libya’s 37-article interim constitution, passed after Gadhafi fell, the state “shall ensure freedom of opinion, freedom of speech for individuals and groups, freedom of scientific research, freedom of communication, freedom of press, media, printing, and distribution,” as long as it does not disrupt the public welfare.

But in May 2012, the National Transitional Congress passed a law putting stipulations on free speech, saying Libyans could not “glorify” Gadhafi or create instability through their speech. A month later, the country’s Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional.

Regardless, the government has begun filing criminal charges against those whose speech it does not like. In December, the judiciary ordered the detention of Amara Hassan al Khatabi, editor of al Ummah, a daily newspaper, charging him with insulting and slandering members of its institution after he named 87 judges in a story that alleged they were taking bribes and being loyal to Gadhafi supporters, according to a Human Rights Watch report. Al Khatabi, a frail man, made his first court appearance April 1, sitting in a wheelchair.

“Instead of using Gadhafi-era laws to put journalists in prison, Libya should be revising its laws to protect the unbridled public debate and access to information that Libyans have for so long been denied,” Eric Goldstein, the Middle East and North Africa deputy director of Human Rights Watch, said in an April statement about the case.

Benghazi, a city once known for its great writers and artists, has become the scene of street battles over who is allowed to say what about what is happening here.

“There are people assigning themselves as the punishers and they arrest and kidnap people,” said Ali, a 27-year-old activist who has been tracking such kidnappings and refused to give his last name. “The commanders of the brigades formed after the liberation are causing all the problems. . . . They have agendas. They want to bring the Muslim Brotherhood” to power.

“Those of us who were fighting the regime and trying to create a liberal society, we have become the minority,” Ali said.

On the day he was kidnapped, the 31-year-old journalist already was suspicious. He’d received a Facebook message urging him to attend a press event at a militia headquarters. He told his news organization that if he didn’t call in an hour, they should assume he was in danger. As soon as he arrived, he was snatched from his car, he said.

His kidnappers made a dark reference to the open rebellion that swept this city and routed the Ansar al Shariah militia after the Sept. 11, 2012, death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. While some Libyans called the trashing of Ansar al Shariah’s headquarters “the rescue of Benghazi,” the journalist’s kidnappers called it “the sinking of Benghazi,” he said, because it led to the dismantling of Benghazi’s then most-feared militia.

His news organization became worried and word quickly spread. Scores gathered outside the militia headquarters until he and another journalist were released four hours later. He is still a reporter, he said, but he no longer carries his cameras with him; the kidnappers stole his equipment.

After his release, he said his first thought was: “I am sorry, Gadhafi.”

CORRECTION: A story that moved Monday about the dangers faced by Libyan journalists incorrectly said that the American-funded al-Hurra station was struck with an explosive. It was the Libyan al-Hurra station that was bombed.

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