Libya is banning YouTube and other Web sites used to disseminate messages against the regime
Libya’s crackdown on YouTube, independent news sites and at least seven opposition Web sites based abroad is drawing criticism from human rights organizations.
The moves, which began last month, have been labeled a “disturbing step away from press freedom” and are being condemned by bloggers and activists alike.
“The Internet is the one area where there was real freedom of expression and was a new development over the last five years,” Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch told The Media Line.
“You could get news about the human-rights violations, the political situation, which you couldn’t get at all in the print press.”
“I think there was a political decision that it was getting out of control,” she said. “This was an attempt to crackdown on that space.”
Independent news sites such as Libya Al-Youm and Al-Manara and opposition Web sites such as Libya Al-Mustakbal and Akhbar Libya have been blocked from reporting developments in the country.
Most of the Web sites’ editors are based outside of Libya with journalists inside the country, and are known for publishing news on controversial political subjects, including human rights abuses by the Libyan government.
Hassan Amin, who is based in the United Kingdom and runs the popular opposition site Libya Al-Mostakbal
said this is not the first time his Web site has been targeted by the regime in Tripoli since its establishment more than seven years ago.
“We have a huge following inside Libya itself,” Amin told The Media Line. “Right now all those sites, including Libya Al-Mostakbal, are blocked. However, over the years people inside Libya have learned to get around things, so they’re using proxies and other technical methods to break through and see the sites.”
“The feedback we’re getting through emails and phones is that quite a number are managing to get around the blockage,” he said. “When this started we provided people through emails and mobile messages with proxy links to help them get through.”
The organization also has a channel on YouTube
, which provides a wealth of information on the regime’s human rights violation and opposition activity.
A group of Libyan bloggers, journalists, and rights defenders have started an online campaign on Facebook, which is still available to users in Libya, called “No to the Policy of Blocking Web sites in Libya,” and have shared proxy servers to allow access to the blocked web sites.
Since 2003, Libya has taken some significant measures in an attempt to thaw frosty relations with the international community.
Moves included abandoning its WMD (weapons of mass destruction) program in 2003; settling the case of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who were accused of infecting Libyan children with HIV and imprisoned for eight years before their release in 2007; and accepting responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing.
But human-rights activists say these changes have not been accompanied by improvements in the country’s human rights record.
“The real change in Libya’s policies was primarily in their foreign policy,” Morayef explained. “Their reintegration into the international community was because they gave up the WMD and settled a lot of the outstanding issues such as the Lockerbie case. But there hasn’t been any parallel improvement or internal reforms in terms of human rights.”
“That’s something a lot of Western governments were happy to overlook, because of interest in Libya’s oil and its impact as a counter terrorism partner,” she continued. “For the EU, Libya is a main migration group and they’re keen to get Libya to hold back the migrants. Because of those interests they were willing to overlook the fact that the human rights situation was so bad.”
Amin said he did not believe recent moves in Libya to relax control of the media were genuine, and were largely cosmetic measures aimed at making Libya’s freedom track record look more attractive.
In recent months, media outlets belonging to independent and opposition groups have focused on the scandals involving President Mu’ammar Al-Qadhafi’s sons, and have covered frequent demonstration at the Abu Sleem prison in Benghazi, where families of victims are demanding justice for inmates who disappeared or were killed in a prison crackdown in 1996.
“I think the regime now realizes that this is having an effect,” Amin said. “There are many people trying to contact us and who are writing from Libya. A lot of information has been published by Libya Al-Mostakbal and other sites. They realize this is going too far and they want to do something about this.”
In addition to the online clamp-down, Libya has refused to extend licenses for two private newspapers, Oea and Quryna, which will now appear online only. The General Press Authority (GPA) cited financial reasons for the decision, claiming the company that owns the papers is in debt and has not paid printing costs. The GPA has not given information about attempts to solve the financial dispute.
Oea and Quryna started publishing in 2007 and are the first two privately-owned newspapers in Libya since Mu’ammar Al-Qadhafi came to power 40 years ago.
They have covered sensitive topics such as corruption, lack of independence of the judiciary and the Abu Sleem demonstrations.