Libya: where even censorship is pan-Arab
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 magnum opus.
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.