Freedom of speech in Libya under threat from new law

In a talk at Chatham House in London today, Libya’s interim Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Kib talked about “re-establishing the state” in Libya after 42 years of Gaddafi’s brutal rule and about the path towards elections due next month. He said the interim government is “committeed to enhancing respect for human rights”.

Challenged on Law 37, passed at the start of May, which restricts freedom of speech, El-Kib defended the law as necessary during a time of transition when there is still what he called “a tremendous effort to destabilise the country”. He went on to say that “there are many who are trying to get us to a point where we cannot even hold the election.”

Law 37 prohibits “damaging” the 17 February revolution and also criminalises any insults to Islam, or the “prestige of the state or its institutions or judiciary, and every person who publicly insults the Libyan people, slogan or flag”. This law clearly undermines the right to free expression and risks undermining Libya’s transition to democracy since any free election must be based on open debate and respect for rights.

Prime Minister El-Kib said: “Once we get to elections and a general assembly is formed, I guarantee that such laws will disappear.” This however will depend in future on the national assembly and not on the current interim Prime Minister and so there are no guarantees unless the law is repealed now.

Asked by Index about freedom of the press and of civil society, El-Kib said the media are flourishing in Libya and that he fully supports press freedom and an active civil society: “We encourage civil society, we meet with them, we participate in their events if we are invited.”

He also expressed his conviction that once elected the national assembly will guarantee human rights and freedom of the press when the new constitution is drawn up: “These reflect a set of values that caused the revolution, so you cannot ever think this is something we want to compromise.”

Until Law 37 is repealed, these positive sentiments will not reflect or presage a new Libya that fully respects human rights.