Libya: where even
censorship is pan-Arab
2009 April 27
A development much seen in the world
of dictatorships these days is the move from direct censorship towards
defamation legislation. To cut and strike sentences in newspaper, as in
the past, was a time-consuming and an unnecessarily intrusive process.
Autocratical regimes all over the globe have therefore, with the advent of
globalization, been readjusting their means of control of the media
landscape. They are now more and more relying on the routine
self-censorship created by strategically targetting newspapers with rigged
defamation trials and administrative harassment, such as tax auditing,
blocking income from state firms’ advertisement, or intentional delays in
issuing licenses — it works almost as well, is much cheaper, and saves
these governments much protest from Western embassies.
This is not, of course, the case in
Libya, where the press remains a parodically propagandistic mobilization
tool in the hands of the Qadhafi family. However, evidently the Brother
Leader is afraid to miss out on such an exciting development in the field
of human rights violations, so to compensate for opportunities lost by
running an overzelous dictatorship at home, he’s started practicing this
new doctrine of censorship abroad.
In 2006, he sued Algeria’s biggest
independent daily, el-Chorouk el-Youmi, after it had reported on Libyan
encouragement to Touaregs to secede from Algeria. Algerian state courts
happily complied, whether out of their own initiative or nudged by
Bouteflika to pay some diplomatic debt to the eastern neighbor. After a
standard unfair trial, the two offending journalists were sent to jail
(later reduced to suspended sentences) and ordered to pay fines. El-Chorouk
was furious, and insisted it had only defended Algeria’s sovereignty.
Displaying the remarkable kamikaze attitude to press constraints that has
often characterized Algerian print journalism, it went on an all-out
offensive against their regime by responding that if it was “defamation”
to highlight anti-Algerian foreign policy in Libya, then perhaps the
newspaper should henceforth also toe the Moroccan line on Western Sahara?
No response was of course forthcoming from the government, which is not in
the habit of acknowledging either the complaints of others or its own
inconsistencies, but somehow the paper got away with it. Maybe Boutef had
already made his point, or maybe domestic and foreign protest had become a
bit too much even for a veteran oppressor like him.
Now, Colonel Qadhafi, apparently
emboldened by the support from Algiers, has moved on to try out the
Moroccan legal system. Three prominent newspapers (el-Ahdath el-maghribiya,
el-Massa and el-Jarida el-oula) have been sued by the “People’s Office of
the Great Socialist Popular Libyan Arab Jamahiriya”, or what would be
known as the Libyan embassy in Rabat, had Libya not been run by a madman
on crack. Their crime is to have written ill of Libya and even, in one
case, to have published a negative review of the Green Book, Qadhafi’s
Press freedom in Morocco has been on
the decline of late, so one has every reason to be worried; especially
since these papers have already been targeted by the rather thin-skinned
regime of Mohammed VI. But, still, if the state can keep its repressive
instincts in check, here is an excellent opportunity to prove that not
only are Moroccan journalists free to write (some of) what they want, but
also, the state has balls enough to tell Qadhafi to shut up and stick it.
We’ll see how this ends.
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