Libya: Media attacked as tensions rise over Political Isolation Law

The attack on a TV station in Tripoli after it broadcasted a debate about a law that would ban those who held office during the al-Gaddafi years from participating in public institutions should be a wake-up call for the authorities to rein in local militias, Amnesty International said today.

It follows a violent interruption of a General National Congress meeting on 5 March by hundreds of protestors who attempted to coerce its members to enact the Political Isolation Law. President of the GNC, Mohammad Magarief was subjected to a gunfire attack as members were eventually allowed to leave the meeting.

On 7 March, a large group of unidentified men stormed the headquarters of Al-Assema TV, a private news channel in Tripoli, and abducted four men, including the owner of the station Jumaa Al-Usta, the former Executive Director Nabil Al-Shibani and journalists Mohammad Al-Houni and Mahmoud Al-Sharkassi.

While both journalists were released a few hours later, the whereabouts of Jumaa Al-Usta and Nabil Shibani remain unknown.

Information suggests the attack might have been carried out in retaliation for the channel’s broadcast of a discussion on the Political Isolation Law, a bill currently being debated in Libya’s parliament, which would exclude officials close to Gaddafi from positions of responsibility in Libya’s public institutions for a ten year period.

“Libyan parliamentarians and media should be allowed to debate and report on public interest issues without any restrictions and in safety,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Programme Director. “Jumaa Al-Usta and Nabil Al-Shibani should be released without delay.”

“While official statements condemning the attack make the right noises, the only way to truly protect freedom of expression in Libya is to investigate this incident and to rein in militias by implementing an effective disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme.”

In its current form, the Political Isolation Law bars 36 categories of individuals who were directly responsible for the “corruption of political, economic, social and administrative life” in Libya during al-Gaddafi’s rule from holding positions of responsibility within public institutions for a period of ten years.

Provisions range from excluding members of the Revolutionary Command Council, to individuals who accumulated wealth at the expense of the Libyan people, or those that were engaged in scientific, scholarly, religious, cultural or social activity or production aiming at glorifying al-Gaddafi and his government.

Different drafts have either attempted to broaden or restrict the criteria for exclusion, highlighting current tensions over the law.

“We recognize how crucial it is to re-establish trust in public institutions in Libya after 42 years of repressive rule marked by human rights abuses,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Programme Director.

“However, we are concerned at the vague wording, extremely broad criteria for exclusion, and the lack of a review procedure make it impossible for those subjected to vetting to appeal the decision.

“A vetting procedure must not become a purge. Excluding from public service individuals responsible for human rights abuses is essential for protecting human rights, but under international human rights law, the Libyan authorities have a responsibility to also respect the rights of those subjected to the process.”