On Friday 31 July, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) called for the immediate release of Ismail Abuzreiba, a Libyan journalist sentenced to 15 years in prison by a military tribunal in the eastern city of Benghazi, an area controlled by commander Khalifa Haftar.
In a statement on Twitter the UNSMIL said:
“UNSMIL is dismayed by the sentencing of the journalist Ismail Abuzreiba to 15 years imprisonment following a trial by a military tribunal in Benghazi. The detention and trial appear to violate Libya’s laws as well as its international obligations on the right to a fair trial” and freedom of expression.”
2/2 The mission is concerned that the detention and trial appear to violate Libya’s laws as well as its international obligations on the right to a fair trial and the right to freedom of opinion and expression. UNSMIL calls for the immediate release of Ismail Abuzreiba pic.twitter.com/87wTxMsJ1n
— UNSMIL (@UNSMILibya) July 31, 2020
The European Union’s ambassador to Libya, Alan Bugeja, wrote on Twitter that he was “extremely concerned” by the sentence, which he said came after the journalist had been held in detention for two years or more.
“I call on the authorities to immediately release him, ensure the respect of his fundamental rights and of freedom of expression,” Bugeja said.
Abuzreiba is known for opposing the eastern-based Libyan National Army army and authorities have not yet announced the reasons for Abuzreiba’s arrest yet. Local media say he was accused of contact with channels and agencies banned in the Haftar-controlled territory.
Haftar launched an offensive on the capital Tripoli, seat of the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), in April last year. Troops loyal to the GNA pushed Haftar’s forces back from the southern outskirts of the capital in May, before repelling them in early June 2020 as far as Sirte in the north.
The fighting over the last year has killed hundreds, including many civilians. It has also heightened the dangers faced by journalists, who have increasingly been harassed and threatened, leading most to leave the country.
At least 19 journalists have been killed in the country since 2011 and many have gone missing.
Mohamed al-Najem, Executive Director of the Libyan Centre for Press Freedom, told Africa News that practicing journalism has almost become impossible in Libya.
“Unfortunately, many journalists are leaving the country and others have stopped practicing the profession inside Libya. At the same time, there is an increase in self-censorship by journalists about the content of their work.”
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the armed conflict between rival governments in the east and west of the country have taken a heavy toll on Libya’s media and journalists. They are now embroiled in an unprecedented crisis, with several media outlets being press-ganged into serving the various warring factions. As well as turning the media into propaganda outlets, the conflict’s political and military actors have become news censors.
Libya ranks 164th out of 180 countries in the RSF World Press Freedom Index for 2020.