NTC’s New Censorship Laws Will Create Chilling Effect
Revolutions don’t tend to have long honeymoons. As the euphoria of victory subsides, expectations are voiced with new urgency, and pragmatism takes hold. The presence – or absence – of tangible change is the marker by which future governments are to be appraised. After all, if a regime is toppled in the name of its injustices, it follows that subsequent governments will be subjected to that same, powerful scrutiny. If they are somehow immune to criticism, then the very principle of dissent is placed under threat.
This is the context surrounding the NTC’s passing of Law 37 (2012) which criminalises the glorification of the former regime, including Gaddafi, his children and his ideology. It further criminalises anyone who insults ‘the prestige of the state’, its institutions or the Libyan people, as well as those who undermine the Feb 17th Revolution. Human Rights groups such as Amnesty International have been quick to attack the new laws, deeming them dangerously regressive and reminiscent of Gaddafi’s dictatorial legislation. Libya, it’s already being said, it taking a step back in the wrong direction.
It’s patently obvious that the law is an attempt to censor and quash any serious political dissent. Indeed, so far both the NTC and the interim government have come under fire for their perceived inefficacy. But, this isn’t the only issue at stake. It’s the very way in which the law is articulated which sets a dangerous precedent for political expression in Libya. In one page, the NTC enacts a disturbingly comprehensive act of censorship, and it does so under the guise of ‘protecting’ Libya and its people. The law is manipulatively framed, minimising the extent to which it undermines the civil liberties of Libyan citizens.
As a starting point, let’s take the title of Law 37: ‘Criminalizing the glorification of the tyrant’. But wait, what about the second article, which prescribes a prison sentence for anyone who insults the state? Or even the Libyan flag, for that matter? You see, that’s only a mild addendum, just a small footnote (or so you would think, from the title). The real problem here, according to the NTC, is with ‘those’ who glorify Gaddafi, or even worse, do so in an attempt to disrupt Libya’s security.
It doesn’t need to be said that many a government has committed gross violations in the interests of protecting ‘state security’. The question here is, is the voicing of pro-Gaddafi sympathies in Libya (however distasteful or illogical others may find them), currently a dangerous threat confronting the Libyan state? Nothing suggests so. But by rallying around “our” hatred of the tyrant, the law can attempt to appropriate the voice of the Libyan people, to speak for their interests and for their safety. By stirring up a vision of Libya in danger, the NTC is able to criminalise anything that will threaten it even further.
The law implies that the new Libya should be everything and anything the old regime wasn’t. Of course, this reversal simply reinforces the old patterns of censorship. If political free speech was limited to the glorification of Gaddafi, then we should do the complete opposite and punish the glorification of Gaddafi. In the cramped language of Law 37, this apparently counts as free speech. By extension, what the NTC could really means to say is: don’t glorify Gaddafi, glorify us instead.
Having forged a common spirit of unity against supporters of Gaddafi, the law moves onto Article 2, which is even more ominous. It begins by criminalising those who ‘undermine the Feb 17th Revolution’, in a crude appeal to nationalistic sentiment. One may well ask then, what is it that constitutes lawful revolutionary sentiment? What are the principles of the revolution anyway, and how can they be upheld or defamed? Quite conveniently, the NTC provides the answer to that question. You only need to align yourself with the policies of the state (which, as it’s already established, are just an extension of Libyan interests anyway), and you’ll be firmly on the safe side of the law. Job done.
Throughout Law 37, the NTC stridently attempts to present itself as the chivalrous defender of the rights of the Libyan people. It objects to that which ‘weakens citizens’ morale’, effectively linking the ‘morale’ of the people with the morale of the government. In Article 2, it makes a feeble reference to criminalising those who insult Islam (knowing full well the significance of religion to many Libyans), before rushing forth to defend ‘the prestige of the state and its institutions, regulatory or judicial’. It is this hypocritical masking of suppression which renders the law as dishonest as it is immoral. And in case it wasn’t obvious enough, Article 3 declares that: ‘Any rule which contravenes this law shall be overturned’. Phew, that should have all bases covered.
We should be clear on one thing: this isn’t a philosophical debate over what constitutes the niceties of ‘free speech’. Instead, it touches the very heart of the Libyan uprising: the desire for unfettered, free political expression. An NTC official told Amnesty international that the law was partly in place in order to promote ‘national reconciliation’ – as though reconciliation is best promoted through censorship. Most worryingly, this desire for political homogeneity means there may be nothing left to reconcile…at all.