By George Grant.
Tripoli, 5 December:
Protesters gathered in Martyr’s Square in Tripoli this afternoon, Wednesday, to demonstrate against the new Ministry of Information and a recent law regulating the right to protest. Needless to say, the protesters had chosen to ignore the regulations.
Having been widely publicised on local radio stations and social networking sites, the gathering nevertheless failed to attract more than around 50 people. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their mouths symbolically taped closed, the protesters accused the government and Congress of attempting to restrict free speech in Libya.
“These decisions will force the people to talk just as the government wishes”, said Shtewi Salah, a cartoonist. “We want to let all the people know we will not be silenced.”
Last month, the National Congress voted into existence a new Ministry of Information to regulate the Libyan media. Supporters argue it is necessary to bring some semblance of order to the wholly unregulated environment that exists at present, but opponents say the ministry could be used to muzzle criticism of the authorities.
There is also some controversy surrounding the manner in which the ministry came into being, with the entire process initiated and pushed through by Congress, with no formal input from the government. It is reported, however, that Prime Minister Ali Zeidan does support the idea of the new ministry.
The demonstrators’ grievance with the new law regulating public protests, meanwhile, was a provision empowering the authorities to impose a six-month jail sentence and LD 5,000 fine on protest organisers who fail to adhere to the law’s numerous provisions. The sentence can be doubled if the said persons are found in possession of a weapon.
Amongst other things, the law stipulates that the authorities must be notified of any planned protest at least 48 hours in advance, including the planned location, route and time.
Those at today’s protest appeared to be broadly under the impression that anyone could be fined or jailed for turning up at an unauthorised protest, and said it was a point of principle that the authorities had not been informed about this one.
“We don’t have permission for this process, so perhaps the government will come and put us in jail and take LD 5,000”, said Ali Abu Hussein, an engineer. “This new Ministry of Information is designed to shut our mouths, so all media will be under their control. They want to stop the truths and facts, to capture people and put them in jail.”
Not everyone who had gathered on Martyr’s Square opposed the new law and ministry, however. Abdul Ali, a senior employee at the Libyan Foreign Bank, said regulations were necessary in any free society:
“The people here want freedom, but with freedom there also has to be responsibility. Many in the media are not reporting news, they are just giving their views. I heard the Al-Jawhara radio station yesterday going crazy to convince people to go out on the street and do bad things. Right now the media is total uncontrolled; people are pouring petrol on the fire and it could lead to an explosion in the country.”
On the protests, Ali pointed to the numerous instances when demonstrations had got out of hand and insisted there had to be rules. “If I am a trade-union leader in London and I want to strike, I have to inform the government; it’s logical. People are going crazy breaking into the GNC and the prime minister’s office.”
Monitoring today’s gathering, as ever, were plainclothes officers from the Supreme Security Committee, who chose not to exercise their right to break-up this particular unauthorised demonstration. [/restrict]