Libya’s Old Tricks

By Nick Grace and Nir Boms
Published December 16, 2005

Despite some positive steps taken by Libya in the past few years to normalize relations with Europe and the United States, the government of Col. Muammar Qaddafi has proven that it neither respects the fundamental rights of its citizens nor can be trusted to observe the norms of international law. The regime’s ruthless campaign to silence dissenting views, a campaign that until recently extended no further than Libyan borders, now targets the global telecommunications system and cannot be tolerated. 

The government routinely arrests and detains journalists who dare publish content critical of the regime and its policies. In some cases – like that of Daif Al Ghazal, whose mutilated body was discovered earlier this year – journalists and critics of the regime have disappeared and have been tortured and murdered. Yet no recourse can be found in the Libyan court system. Last month, an Internet journalist named Abd al-Raziq al-Mansuri was sentenced to a year and a half in prison for critical articles he published on the London-based Web site Fathi Eljahmi, an intellectual who spent 18 months in prison for calling for free speech and pluralism in 2002, was carted off to jail again recently for an interview he conducted on the U.S. government-run Al Hurra television network. 

The campaign against dissent has been treated by the international community as an internal matter easily dealt with through diplomatic channels on the road toward normalization. The case of a little satellite radio station that sought to beam a message of hope and freedom into Libya and the regime’s aggressive counterstrike should shatter any doubt about Lybia’s potential for reform and Col. Qaddafi’s respect for international law. 

The station, Sowt al-Amel (Voice of Hope), was launched from London in September as an independent effort to promote freedom, human rights and political reform in Libya – an impossible effort inside the country where every newspaper , radio and television station are controlled by the regime. 

The entire Libyan diaspora embraced Sowt al-Amel as it prepared to hit the airwaves and applauded its planned start-up when the major players in Libya’s democracy movement met in July during a historic National Conference of the Libyan Opposition. Sowt al-Amel launched the first non-partisan and non-violent assault on Col. Qaddafi’s media monopoly, and was the first serious effort to break the Libyan information blockade in over a decade. It was hoped to be a beacon of hope within Col. Qaddafi’s internal campaign of terror. 

But within minutes of Sowt al-Amel’s first broadcast on Sept. 19, Tripoli demonstrated its determination to keep the station off the air. Well prepared, it unleashed its response – a high-powered signal of garbled noise on the satellite uplink that easily destroyed the signal of the small London station. The noise heralded Libya’s entrance into the circle of rogue nations that today silence the free voices of liberty through jamming: China, Cuba, Iran, the Maldives and Zimbabwe. 

The effect of the jamming on the Eutelsat Hotbird satellite was not limited to the dissident voice. BBC World, Euro News, ESPN, CNN and Channel 5 were also blown off the air. According to the Middle East Newsline and confirmed to the authors by a source in the British government, U.S. military and diplomatic traffic that used the satellite were also affected. Officials at the highest levels of the U.S. State Department and British Foreign Office expressed concern. Indeed, while jamming is a routine weapon against unwelcome voices for many regimes, few states have brazenly attacked satellites as Libya had. 

The Libyan dissidents, meanwhile, were told that they could not longer broadcast from their current host, Hotbird, because of the damage faced by other commercial users. The station then turned to an American satellite, Loral Skynet’s Telstar 12. But within 45 minutes of broadcasting the signal was again wiped out with jamming. An anonymous e-mail arrived at the offices of the U.S. provider that called the station “terrorist propaganda” and indirectly threatened the company with further jamming attacks. Sowt al-Amel was again forced off the air. 

Proving that the jamming originated from Libya was the easy part. Loral Skynet traced its footprint through sophisticated Geo-location analysis directly to Tripoli. Getting Col. Qaddafi to comply with International Telecommunications regulations of the U.N. International Telecommunications Union (ITU), for which Libya is a signatory, would be another story. 

Without a platform to broadcast into Libya, according to Sowt al-Amel director Jalal El Giathi, the station has lost nearly half a million dollars in lost advertising revenue. More importantly, he said, “We are losing our chance to bring democracy to Libya.” 

Allowing a regime to disrupt European and American satellites without retribution may indicate that silencing voices of dissent may become an acceptable norm. Worse yet, the loss of the little Libyan radio station to government-sanctioned jamming tells millions of people around the world who suffer under information blockades that the free world does not care. 

“Knowledge is Freedom” and “Ignorance is Power,” said George Orwell in 1984, lessons that dictators like Col. Qaddafi appear to understands well. Someone needs to tell him that he is wrong. 
 Nick Grace is the founder of Nir Boms is the vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East.

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