With the first Libyan elections in 40 years just a month away, the shadow of the Gaddafi regime looms large. The National Transitional Council (which holds power in Libya until those elections) recently passed a law that criminalizes glorifying Gaddafi as well as offending the revolution. Bob speaks with Libya Herald editor Sami Zaptia about the implications of the law for speech in Libya.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media, I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Next month, for the first time in four decades, Libya will hold its first open elections, but the shadow of the old regime hangs over the process. According to the Agence France-Presse, anyone with ties to the Muammar Gaddafi government cannot run in the elections. And a law passed two weeks ago, criminalizes glorifying Gaddafi. That’s not all. The law also punishes anyone who offends the Libyan uprising or the state or Islam. Sami Zaptia is editor of The Libya Herald. He says he’s not sure what he’s prohibited from doing.
SAMI ZAPTIA: It’s very loose, it’s very wide, it’s very vague. Does it include the flag? Does it include the national anthem? Does it include the current prime minister and his government and his ministers? It is a step back in the wrong direction.
BOB GARFIELD: The language of this law is not all that dissimilar to that of other states in the region. There are red lines everywhere.
SAMI ZAPTIA: Yeah, but we would like to think that we are moving ahead and moving forward. We are hoping to see ourselves maybe more in line with Tunisia and the new Arab Spring nations. We are hoping to get away from those words “red lines.” Libyans have a complex with that phraseology, “red lines” ‘cause that’s what the Gaddafi family used to tell us and warn us, not to transgress the red lines, which included the Gaddafi family, his tribe, his, his philosophy, his Green Book.
BOB GARFIELD: ‘Til now, have you seen any evidence that the National Transitional Council has an authoritarian streak, that you could go from the frying pan to the fire?
SAMI ZAPTIA: Let’s put it this way. The NTC is a dictatorship but it is a benign dictatorship, and the only guarantor that this is not going to last forever is, of course, that by this June there would be elections for a parliament, for a congress that will draft a new constitution, choose a new government, that would choose a new prime minister.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the elections are coming up next month. That’s not a coincidence, right?
SAMI ZAPTIA: The NTC could have decreed such a law. You know, when Libya was declared liberated, and they didn’t, and they did it just before elections. There is another view that, in fact, speaking to a member of the NTC today, that this law partially protects pro-Gaddafi supporters. There is no sympathy for them whatsoever, and if any pro-Gaddafi supporters were to dare come out and manifest the support for the old regime by carrying the old green flag or his Green Book or, God forbid, even a poster or a picture of him, blood would be spilled.
So maybe, really, the aim is to diffuse any such conflicts, any such clashes. That could be one reason, as opposed to really, the NTC wanting to protect itself or the government from criticism.
BOB GARFIELD: A story in The Libya Herald, your paper, posted on, on Tuesday, quotes a former minister of justice criticizing the new law as quote, “a shameful duplication of the past.”
Under a broad interpretation of the law, this very article about the former minister’s criticism could itself be a violation. Has the law ‘til now had a chilling effect on the stories that you publish?
SAMI ZAPTIA: Not at all. I mean, we’re not gonna go out of our way to insult the Libyan flag or the Libyan national anthem, but there’s no way we are going to stop criticizing any minister’s ministerial decisions. We try to be constructive, we try to depersonalize our criticism. We are more concerned about policy, the thrust of decisions and laws. You know, Libya, democracy is nascent and, you know, we haven’t got to the advanced stage in the West and definitely in Britain, with the tabloids, of course. We are far from that now.
BOB GARFIELD: You’ve been back in Libya for six years, having spent thirty years in England, which means that you were laboring under the Gaddafi rule. First of all, I’m - I wonder what it’s like to have been a journalist under those circumstances. I guess, secondly, I want to know if you have an eerie sense of déjà vu.
SAMI ZAPTIA: I was writing for a, a state-controlled, if not owned, publication. I was responsible for at least one edition to be canceled. They were not distributed because I criticized a policy to import doctors from a neighboring country, which I thought was completely wrong when, when we have thousands of Libyan doctors abroad refusing to come to Libya. And I dared to raise the question, why is it that they will not come back and work in their own nation?
After a while you learn to self-edit and you learn to write in between the lines, alluding to issues and hinting to them, and the readers become sophisticated, knowing the environment you have to work in. When the law first came out, we all raised our eyebrows. You know, it was a throwback, a little flash to the kind of rules and regulations controlling what is said, what is not said, that we used to live under and we used to have to work under.
BOB GARFIELD: So will you now, once again, have to practice journalism by subtext?
SAMI ZAPTIA: No, I don’t think it’s that bad. This government can barely keep physical control of the nation. The court system is barely up. You know, they, they barely have time to put say, for Gaddafi on trial, yet alone, put somebody like me, a minor person like me, on trial. They’re probably wishing to use it more as a deterrent, as opposed to an aggressive tool. Well, that’s my hope, anyway.
BOB GARFIELD: Sami, thank you so much.
SAMI ZAPTIA: You’re welcome. It’s been a pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Sami Zaptia is editor of The Libya Herald.