Libyan Attacks on Freedom of Expression – the Root of the Unrest

“All my people love me. They would die to protect me,” said Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi earlier this month.  This, however, contrasts starkly with the reality of the situation in Libya, leading to the US ambassador to the UN to declare the leader “delusional.”  Nearly two weeks earlier, anti-government protests broke out in Libya following the resignation of former Egyptian leader, Muhammad Hosni Mubarak.  The government responded with military action, leaving more than 100 dead in the first four days of protests.  The UN security council responded by calling for an end to the violence.  This, however, was nearly three weeks ago, yet the crisis in Libya remains.

The latest news emerging from the Middle East still revolves mainly around the situation in Libya.  The government forces are using tear gas to subdue protestors.  In Tripoli, where Gaddafi claims all is now “calm and normal,” police clamp down on citizens peacefully assembling in the streets.  One young man says, “They are shooting and we have only stones to throw from the side alleys.”  Despite the UN’s suspension of Libya from its Human Rights Council over the attacks on protestors, the violence persists.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the situation in Libya an “increasingly troubling humanitarian situation” and called for urgent, unimpeded access to the areas of the country affected by violence.  Additionally, the UN has called for an end to indiscriminate attacks on civilians.  It seems unlikely, however, that the regime will heed the calls to cease the attacks, and the International Criminal Court announced last week that there is already sufficient evidence to investigate Gaddafi for crimes against humanity.

Last Wednesday, The Guardian reported the arrest and torture of two BBC reporters.   Feras Killani, a reporter for the BBC Arabic Service, and Goktay Koraltan, a cameraman, were arrested and beaten.  “I think there was something personal against me,” said Killani. “They knew me and the sort of coverage I had been doing, especially from Tajoura the Friday before. They don’t like us or Arabiya or Jazeera.”  The Guardian describes in detail the attacks Killani suffered, as well as the conditions he observed of the other detainees.  Broken ribs, swollen hands and faces, screams of pain, and reports of starvation – all these were observed by the BBC reporters whose release the BBC was able to secure. 

The humanitarian crisis in Libya is rooted quite clearly in the government’s attempt to limit, and in fact prevent, the free expression of those in opposition to it.  This situation therefore begs the question:  where does the balance lie between the State’s right to defend its territorial integrity and an individual’s human right to free expression and assembly?  The answer depends heavily on how the individuals are categorised. There is, in fact, an integral difference implied by the various words used to describe the government opponents.  For example, the characterisation of the opponents as ‘protestors’ implies the infringement of free expression, whereas the characterisation of the opponents as ‘rebel forces’ implies a situation akin to civil warfare.  The latter implies a situation where the government’s infringement on free expression is justified to protect the integrity of the nation.

 It is important to not lose sight of how the rebellion has escalated: with the Libyan police firing live rounds of ammunition teargas into crowds of unarmed citizens exercising their basic human right to free expression.  Before categorising the taking up of arms as “armed rebellion” or “terrorism” the State’s blatant disregard  for its citizens’ right to life and to bodily integrity should be carefully considered.  

by Elizete Velado

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