Libya: Online Voices Silenced with Violence

Earlier this month, the Libyan Armed Forces under Commander-in-Chief Khalifa Haftar not only besieged the Abu Hadi region south of Sirte, but “they also shut down internet and telecom services.” According to Libyan Crimes Watch, Haftar’s forces claimed they were waging a security offensive to capture fugitives in the area.

Internet shutdowns have been frequently weaponized by belligerent parties in Libya to silence opposition. When protests erupted in the capital Tripoli, the authorities intentionally shut down the internet and telecom networks. Digital violations in Libya are not limited to internet shutdowns, as they also include privacy breaches, imprisonment of those who express their opinions, and in some cases, even murder.

Privacy Breaches
For years, Libyans have been enduring frequent and systematic privacy breaches, according to a Libyan social activist who wished to remain anonymous. In a conversation with SMEX, he said that such breaches “are usually committed by militias and armed groups affiliated with the authorities.” 

The activist explained that most incidents occur at crossings and checkpoints between regions. “Armed individuals intercept citizens’ movements and force them to disclose their mobile and social media passwords—especially Facebook—so they can view their private conversations and determine where their real political loyalties lie.”

Moreover, the practices of certain institutions reinforce such breaches. This was particularly true when the national ID numbers of the applicants to the electrical engineer position were published in August, according to a Libyan social media expert who also requested to remain anonymous fearing prosecution if he was accused of criticizing the breach of Libyan citizens’ privacy by government agencies. 

A similar incident had occurred previously, when the private data of students was published on the websites of schools and academies “without requiring any passwords, as the data was made accessible to everyone.”

Due to their fear of being investigated, prosecuted, or becoming the victim of smear campaigns by government loyalists or de facto militias, many Libyans are reluctant to engage in digital discussions on social media related to politics or current issues, and they avoid public digital spaces generally.

Instead, they “prefer to engage in small, closed groups on some applications, where their conversations are often restricted by reservations and secrecy,” according to a Libyan lawyer and activist. The lawyer, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid any potential damage to her reputation, told SMEX that this type of self-censorship “has silenced the voices of Libyan citizens and blacked out international media coverage, at a time when digital platforms have become an important source for major international media outlets, humanitarian organizations, and human rights groups.”

Meanwhile, many parties have taken advantage of this widespread use of social media, whereby “the numbers of personal pages and fake accounts have increased in Libya, acting as digital armies that publish the names and accounts of activists who criticize the militias or authorities or even threaten to murder them,” according to the Libyan social media expert.

In his conversation with SMEX, the latter said that “there is no tangible evidence that these pages are officially affiliated with the authorities or militias, but they are clearly loyal to them and serve the policies and objectives of the authorities or militias.”

For example, in March, the General Administration of Central Support, a security agency affiliated with the Ministry of Interior, stormed the clinic of plastic surgeon Abdul Azim Arif in Sirte and arrested him after a smear campaign by certain Facebook pages such as “Sirte al-Qardabiyah 2” (سرت القرضابية ٢) and “Abu Bakr al-Warfali” (أبو بكر الورفلي), according to the expert.

These digital smear practices, which often have religious and ideological underpinnings, could lead to criminal acts. Almost two years ago, prominent lawyer and activist Hanane al-Barassi was shot dead in Benghazi, eastern Libya, after she shared a livestream on her Facebook page in which she criticized armed groups loyal to military commander Khalifa Haftar.

Ongoing Tactic
The ruling authorities also adopt a tactic of restricting the online activity of activists and opponents, as they have legalized repression by having the Libyan House of Representative issue the new Cybercrime Law in October 2021.

This law imposes several restrictions to freedom, such as blocking websites and removing unwanted content, without any judicial decision or authorization. Furthermore, the law’s provisions give judges a lot of room for interpretation and a broad discretionary power in relation to evidence and criminalization, which has enabled the authorities to implement the law as they see fit.

In August 2020, the Military Court in Benghazi sentenced Libyan photographer and activist Ismail Bouzriba to 15 years of imprisonment for expressing his opinion and criticizing the authorities. Bouzriba was released in September 2021 following international efforts and pressure by several international organisations, such as Reporters Without Borders and others.

In 2018, security forces arrested several workers for “violating public morals” at a café in Benghazi, where a group of women held a series of meetings to establish a space for dialogue for Libyan women, after the spread of the hashtag #Twitter_women’s_gathering (تويتر_بنات_تجمع#(.

The Libyan Ministry of Interior claimed in a statement that the meeting was “an immoral party for men and women which had to be shut down.” This exposed the participants to a smear campaign, going as far as threatening them and their families with murder.

After publishing a video on Facebook documenting a military vehicle accompanying the Prime Minister’s motorcade intercepting and colliding with a civilian vehicle, citizen Faisal Abu Bakr Belhaj was kidnapped in June in the city of Misrata by the Joint Operations Force, affiliated with the Government of National Unity.

Another prominent incident was the kidnapping of rights activist and blogger Nadine al-Farsi, the daughter of Colonel Said al-Farsi in eastern Libya, by a force loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in August in the city of Benghazi. According to her father, Nadine was arrested “in an attempt to silence opposition activists abroad, of whom my daughter is part, after she was threatened and asked to shut down her page and not post anything against Haftar and his sons.”

A similar incident occurred when Iftikhar Boudra was arrested for calling people to stand up to the chaos and militarization of the state in eastern Libya on social media. She has been detained in Benghazi for four years.

These incidents in Libya constitute blatant violations of human rights, and they are partly due to the digital siege imposed by the authorities. This is coupled with a near-total lack of documentation of violations, given the scarcity of sources and the fear and reluctance of social media users to share news, photos, or videos documenting violations.

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Ragheb Malli

Communications Manager at EGovernment Research Center. Human rights activist and researcher.