Libya: Three years on, Gaddafi-era laws used to clamp down on free expression

Mounting curbs on freedom of expression are threatening the rights Libyans sought to gain by overthrowing Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, said Amnesty International ahead of the third anniversary of the 2011 Libyan uprising.

In the latest move to stifle dissent across Libya, the authorities have consolidated a Gaddafi-era law that criminalizes insults to the state, its emblem or flag.  The amended version of Article 195 of the Penal Code outlaws all criticism of the ‘17 February Revolution’ or insults to officials. An almost identical law drafted under al-Gaddafi banned all acts regarded as an attack against the Great Fateh Revolution and its leader.

“Three years ago Libyans took to the streets to demand greater freedom, not another authoritarian rule,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director at Amnesty International.

“What is the difference between not being able to criticize al-Gaddafi’s ‘Al-Fateh Revolution’ or the ’17 February Revolution’? Behind both is the idea that expression is limited and some issues of taboo.”

“At this rate the Libyan authorities are headed down a dangerous path. The amendment is nothing more than a semantic alteration – substituting the name of one revolution with another. It is a copy and paste job of legislation from the Gaddafi-era and a flagrant attempt to undermine freedom of expression. The article should be repealed immediately.”

Following the end of the Libyan conflict, Article 195 remained in force until its amendment on 5 February. Under the amended provision anyone who publicly insults the legislative, executive or judicial authorities can be punished with a prison term ranging from three to 15 years. The law also criminalizes insults against members of the General National Congress (GNC), Libya’s interim parliament, who voted on the amendment.

“Muammar al-Gaddafi routinely used repressive legislation to silence his critics and political opponents. To replace these with carbon-copy laws is a clear betrayal of the aspirations of the ‘17 February Revolution’,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

In a constitutional declaration adopted shortly before Colonel al-Gaddafi’s ousting in August 2011 Libya’s transitional authorities promised to guarantee the right to freedom of expression.

Instead of strengthening protections for freedom of expression the authorities have persisted to use al-Gaddafi’s repressive laws. Last year the previous version of the same article was used to prosecute Amara al-Khattabi, a journalist who published a list of 84 judges whom he alleged were corrupt. His trial is ongoing.

At least one individual was brought to trial on charges of “insulting the revolution” for describing “revolutionaries” as “rats” while studying abroad during the conflict, using the same article.

In recent weeks, the GNC has also passed a decree banning satellite television stations that broadcast views perceived as “hostile to the ‘17 February Revolution’ or that are deemed to be aimed at destabilizing the country or creating “discord between Libyans”.

Last month the authorities also adopted a decree to punish Libyan students and state employees abroad who engaged in “activities hostile to the ‘17 February Revolution’” by withdrawing their scholarships, salaries and bonuses. The decree also instructs embassies and relevant authorities to submit names to the General Prosecution for interrogation.

Amnesty International fears that the broad and vague provision included in the decree may be used to prosecute Libyan individuals who publicly expressed their opposition to the uprising and participated in protests and demonstrations supporting Colonel al-Gaddafi’s rule during their time abroad.

“The repeated calls not to offend the ‘17 February Revolution’ should set alarm bells ringing in the minds of all Libyans.  No one should be sent to prison merely for expressing his or her views even if they are considered offensive,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.Amnesty International is calling on the Libyan authorities to immediately repeal all laws that place undue restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly throughout Libya.

While thousands of Libyans were allowed to protest peacefully across the country and express their views over Libya’s transition and the mandate of the GNC last weekend, reporting on politically sensitive issues can still be dangerous.   

In further evidence of the tightening stranglehold on freedom of expression in Libya, attacks against journalists by state-affiliated media and other groups have escalated since the end of the conflict. Journalists face assassination attempts, abductions and recurrent threats – including death threats in relation to their reporting. Most recently on 11 February the Tripoli office of Al-Assema, a local television station was attacked with rocket propelled grenades. The channel’s Benghazi office director had earlier been briefly abducted. 

Like other militia abuses, the authorities have been unable to investigate attacks against journalists and prosecute those responsible.

“A true test for Libya’s freedom of expression is how it will deal with attacks against journalists who report on the current political crisis. A safe space for public debate must be protected, including on politically sensitive topics,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui. “The authorities have an obligation to investigate all attacks against freedom of expression and ensure that they don’t go unpunished.” 


Freedom of expression An attempt to curtail freedom of expression in the name of protecting the “17 February Revolution” was also made under Libya’s first transitional authorities. In May 2012, the National Transitional Council adopted law 37 criminalizing the glorification of the former leader Colonel al-Gaddafi. Certain provisions of the law were based on Article 195 of the Penal Code. In addition to prescribing prison sentences for spreading false rumours, propaganda or information with the aim of harming national defence or “terrorizing people”, the law also punished anyone harming “the 17 February Revolution”, offending Islam, the state and its institutions, or for “publicly offending the Libyan people”. The law was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court a month later.

Attacks on journalists The number of media outlets swelled in the “new Libya”, three years on, abuses and increased attacks on media have led in some cases to self-censorship, and have forced, at times, journalists to resign from their jobs.  

At least two journalists have been killed in targeted shootings. Ezzedine Kousad, a presenter for al-Hurra TV station, was shot dead while driving his car in Benghazi in August 2013. Radwan al-Gharyani, manager of Tripoli FM was shot dead in December 2013 in a Tripoli neighbourhood.

On 6 February, unidentified attackers attempted to break into the Benghazi office of Libya al-Ahrar, a local TV channel, opening fire on the building. In a seemingly related event, the offices of Libya Awwalan TV were attacked on the same night.

Fearing a similar attack and after receiving a number of threats, the staff of Al-Assema TV channel decided to evacuate their Benghazi office. The office’s director, Mohamed al-Sureet was briefly abducted on 5 February while he was reporting on an attack against Saiqa Brigade guards stationed outside of al-Jalaa Hospital. He was released unharmed 10 hours later. 

Amnesty International fears that these recent attacks may be related to the channels reporting on the current political crisis.