Libya RIPS UP Freedom of the Press agreement.

Tom Steadman writes on the treatment of journalists in Libya.

Many things are taken for granted in the western world, most of all the right to freedom of speech, and in turn the freedom of the press. Freedom of the press is the very reason The Tab itself recently published the opinion pieces for and against Moazzam Begg giving a talk during Islamic Awareness week.

The civilised world takes a strong view on government censorship, giving western journalists the opportunity to expose stories as they feel necessary. A perfect example is the expenses scandal revealed by The Daily Telegraph – a revelation that many figures in government would have wanted to be kept quiet for obvious reasons.

Even in contentious areas such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan there is no restriction on where reporters visit, allowing journalists to gain access to both sides of any story, with the BBC itself interviewing Taliban officials.

However, not all countries are as free with with their media output, with state controlled media in countries such as China and North Korea. However, as they understand the power of the media, they do sometimes allow journalists into the country, often with strict rules on what they can and can’t report on and followed by a ‘minder’ who prevents many a normal citizen giving their true feelings for fear of reprisal.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers,

which is part of the UN charter since its acceptance as international law in 1976. However, its interpretation is only loosely upheld, with many accepting that it is very hard to impart this upon smaller nations when the UN does nothing to implement its use in countries such as China or Russia (when it was the USSR).

In the recent upheavals in the Middle East, the media has been there every step of the way. Rolling news coverage has been afforded to the events in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain. Although there have been several instances were journalists have been caught in the riots or mobs, such as Lara Logan in Egypt after Mubarak had stepped down, these have been isolated events and never state sponsored. However in Libya this trend has taken a horrifying turn.

Never a country exactly open to the western media, many were surprised when Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi invited the media into the country to report upon the uprising in an attempt to sway international opinion, instead resulting in several embarrassing interviews with media outlets such as the BBC where he rambled on oblivious to events being reported on metres away.

Initially, journalists were given free reign to travel around the country. However when many reported on the successes of the rebels, the Libyan government created controls by only allowing the journalists to travel to areas that the government dictated. However, this also backfired upon the Libyans, as at one point journalists were taken to a rebel held town while Gadaffi announced his control of the same town!

In the interests of free speech, several journalists started looking for more realistic stories. This is where the Libyan Government has taken a dark turn. Initially only equipment and notes were confiscated at check points by Libyan soldiers if the content was deemed offensive to the state, a vague enough term to encompass many a story in a nation torn apart by civil war.

However things have taken a horrifying turn over the past week. Several journalists have been detained by the Libyans, with The Guardian last week announcing that their renowned war reporter, Iraqi Abdul-Ahad, had gone missing since contacting the paper on Sunday from Zawiyah, a scene of heavy fighting.  The paper say they have been frantically contacting both British and Libyan authorities in an attempt to find out what has happened to him. It has since been announced by the Libyan foreign minister that he is being held by Libyan authorities.

Even more horrifying was the mock excecution carried out upon a BBC reporting team containing a Palestinian, Feras Killani, a Brit, Chris Cobb – Smith, and a Turk, Goktay Koraltan.

While also reporting from Zawiyah they were arrested by Libyan security forces after travelling without a ‘minder’. They were initially held at a checkpoint before being taken 27km to a military base. At this point one of the team, Feras Killani, was subjected to several horrific beatings and accused of being a spy before an AK-47 rifle was cocked and pointed at him. The three were then taken to another location. That morning they were lined up facing a wall with a rifle pointing at them. Mr Cobb – Smith said that:

”When he got to me at the end of the line, he pulled the trigger twice. The shots went past my ear… They all laughed as though it was very funny.”

They were then released to go about their business, unsurprisingly flying straight to the UK. A video interview can be seen here.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented at least 30 attacks on journalists in the area, of which the BBC arrest is currently the most horrifying. They also report that around seven journalists are currently unaccounted for. Unfortunately for Gaddafi this is only increasing international condemnation of his attempts to regain control of Libya, as media outlets are very powerful at swaying public opinion and arresting and attacking their journalists is not going to keep them interested in showing him in a good light.

The question to be asked now is how the UN will react to this maltreatment of journalists and the principles held by the civilised world towards journalism itself. If they allow Gaddafi to get away with this behaviour and fail to speak out strongly against the actions his government are currently partaking it will set a worrying trend for those other countries that start to throw their weight around when journalists are trying to report on events which the host nation may not fully agree with.

The UN must stand up to Libya and demand their immediate release and that maltreatment of journalists cease in order to protect the standards people expect in the ability of the press to report on world events. I for one hope they do so.