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News of deadly protests emerges in face of information blackout

Protesters hold up placards thanking Al Jazeera as they celebrate in the streets of Tobruk on 22 February. Residents say the eastern port city is now in their control
Protesters hold up placards thanking Al Jazeera as they celebrate in the streets of Tobruk on 22 February. Residents say the eastern port city is now in their control

REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

As violent protests against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi spread to the capital, Tripoli, and Qaddafi and his son this week vowed to fight until the "last man standing", the number of those killed in the unrest now tops 300, reports Human Rights Watch. With the situation difficult to assess because of a government-imposed news blackout, IFEX members are at the very least calling for an independent investigation and a special UN Human Rights Council session to respond to the crisis.

The few reports coming out of Libya have told of mass killings of protesters by armed thugs, security forces supported by foreign mercenaries, and special security battalions using live ammunition in various cities, says Human Rights Watch.

Al Jazeera reported that warplanes had joined security forces in attacking anti-government demonstrators in the capital, Tripoli; witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Libyan forces fired "randomly" at protesters in the capital on 21 and 22 February.

IFEX members have long been documenting the complete absence of independent media and privately owned TV or radio stations in Libya. Libyans who are critical of Qaddafi's regime are routinely disappeared or detained. Foreign journalists work under tight restrictions, and much of the information coming from Libya is impossible to verify. The crisis only serves to underline the severity of Libya's restricted media environment.

For example, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that Atef al-Atrash, a critical Libyan journalist who contributed to news websites Libya-Watanona and Libya al-Mustakbal, disappeared after reporting live on Al Jazeera from demonstrations in Benghazi on 17 February. He had reported that "several journalists" had been detained. He said on air there was "a clear attempt being made to isolate him."

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the daily "Libya Al-Youm" reported that internal security forces briefly arrested Taqi al-Din al-Chalawi and Abdel Fattah Bourwaq, the director and editor of the local news website Irasa on 16 February. The blogger Mohammed al-Ashim Masmari was arrested the same day after giving interviews about the protests to several satellite TV stations, including Al Jazeera and the BBC's Arabic service.

Human Rights Watch said security forces arrested a Benghazi journalist, Hind El Houny, on 17 February, bringing the total number of activists, dissidents, lawyers and former political prisoners arrested since the beginning of demonstrations to at least 17.

According to RSF, the Arab news website Shaffaf reported that in an attempt to stop the protests, "the official media have orchestrated a campaign against those who are trading on the blood of the martyrs." The authorities are also preventing journalists from moving about freely within the country and have denied entry to foreign journalists, says RSF. Local cable TV operators are forbidden to broadcast Al Jazeera but it is available by satellite, although its signal has been intermittently jammed. On 21 February, Al Jazeera reported that landlines and mobile phones have been cut off.

RSF says anti-government protesters responded by ransacking the premises of the Al-Jamahiriya 2 state TV station and Al-Shababia public radio station on 20 February. According to news reports, demonstrators took over a public radio station in Benghazi and appealed on the air to international media to cover the repression being orchestrated by "the criminal Gaddafi".

Meanwhile, the government has shut down all Internet communications in Libya, and arrested Libyans who have given phone interviews to the media, "making it extremely difficult to obtain information on developments there," said Human Rights Watch.

According to CPJ, Libya's Internet crackdown hasn't shown the same consistency as Egypt's six-day long blackout - connectivity has been intermittent - and it is difficult to tell if the shutdowns are deliberate. But CPJ can confirm that where Internet is available, Twitter, Facebook and Al Jazeera's websites have been added to Libya's normal political Internet filters.

"A potential human rights catastrophe is unfolding in Libya as protesters brave live gunfire and death," said Human Rights Watch. "Libya is trying to impose an information blackout, but it can't hide a massacre."

On 21 February, high-ranking Libyan diplomats around the world publicly resigned from their jobs, refusing to represent the government, and demanded strong international action to end the violence.

ARTICLE 19 is calling on the UN Human Rights Council to immediately hold a special session on Libya.

Human Rights Watch is demanding that concerned governments back their condemnatory statements with "concrete action": an embargo on all arms and security equipment to Libya; targeted sanctions against the Libyan leadership; a comprehensive, independent and speedy investigation into any crimes; and an emergency special session by the UN Security Council.

Once treated as a pariah, Libya has been embraced by Western countries hungry for oil and lucrative business opportunities since Gaddafi proclaimed he had abandoned his support for terrorism, says the "Guardian". But there has been very little easing of domestic repression.

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