Voices in Danger: In Libya, Gaddafi's media suppression lingers

Though Gaddafi is gone, the tools he used to stop Libyan journalists attacking him are still being used.

If Libyan journalists had hoped the new regime would see an end to Gadaffi-era censorship, they are now thinking again, especially when they are considering investigating the judiciary.

Libyan journalist Amara al-Khatabi, editor of the Al-Ummah daily newspaper, was jailed in December relating to a story published the previous month accusing judges and other judiciary members of accepting bribes and being loyal to the late Colonel Gadaffi.

The 67-year-old was charged under rules set up by the former dictator that made it a criminal offence to “insult and defame” public officials.

Despite being seriously ill and eventually bedridden, he was held in jail for four months until eventually being granted bail on April 14. But his lawyer says he had his passport confiscated and been banned from travelling. This has now become a serious problem as his worsening health problems mean he needs immediate medical care not available in Libya.

He has diabetes, high blood pressure and lung problems and is barely able to speak. His condition was worsened when he went on hunger strike in protest at his imprisonment and lack of access to his family and lawyer.

His wife Masara al-Ghussain, who also went on hunger strike in protest at his incarceration, told Amnesty International: “All he did was to publish a list of judges.”She added: “I wonder how can a journalist, the editor-in-chief of a newspaper, who published an article, be equated with criminal offenders accused of crimes such as murder, drug trafficking or rape?”The laws were originally put in place by the Gadaffi regime to quell dissent, and the judiciary’s perceived persecution of al-Khatabi has caused serious discomfort among some senior Libyan politicians.

The judge who eventually granted bail  did so after both the judicial affairs minister and the cultural affairs minister called for him to be released. Culture minister Habib Mohamed was quoted as declaring: “The arrest of writers and journalists should not be present in the new Libya and I hope al-Khatabi will be released soon.”

While his release was welcome, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists argue that al-Khatabi should never have faced criminal charges in the first place. The law in Libya should be changed to decriminalise defamation and abolish criminal sanctions against “insulting” public officials and institutions, they argue.

The CPJ has demanded his travel ban be lifted and his passport returned to allow him the medical assistance he badly needs.

His bail was granted after international human rights organisations publicised his situation. Further international publicity could help his case further.

Spread this story through social media. Tweet, blog and Facebook his plight. You can help by alerting your local MPs or directly contacting the Libyan minister of justice and human rights, Salah Marghani. Fax is best, on: +218 2 14 80 54 27. If a voice answers, say “Fax” and proceed.

This article is part of the campaign Voices in Danger, which aims to highlight the plight of global journalists working in difficult conditions. Follow @VoicesinDanger on Twitter.