Libyan writers face backlash of harassment and death threats

Expression

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, freedom of expression is seriously curtailed in Libya. Recently, a number of young authors have feared for their lives after contributing to a book entitled Sun on Closed Windows. The book brought together a number of eminent Libyan writers who hoped to illustrate the power of words in countering extremism and violence. However, its contents have brought condemnation from religiously-conservative elements of Libyan society. 

For example, on 26th August 2017 the book sparked tensions after a literary event focused on an excerpt of text from another novel that was featured in the book. The text in question was actually published four years earlier in a novel called Kashan, which contains a sexually explicit scene. During a book signing held in Zawiya, several excerpts of text were highlighted and quickly went viral after being shared on social media. The text was branded controversial for being immoral and spreading obscenity and subsequently the organiser of the book signing was briefly detained. 

As the Sun on Closed Windows was published by a UK publisher, the text did not go through the Libyan approval system; however, the authors argue that the controversial excerpts from Kashan were approved by authorities when the book was published four years ago. Despite this, copies of the book were quickly confiscated by the Ministry of Culture and Islamist groups in Zawiya also closed public libraries the next day. In the ensuing backlash, the twenty-five authors and two essayists received a barrage of insults and death threats, forcing many into hiding.

In a statement, PEN International commented on the harassment of the authors as well as the unwarranted restriction on freedom of speech, stating that:

“Through their actions and statements the Libyan authorities are undermining freedom of expression. Instead of supporting the writers and editors who are targeted by a religious group, the Ministry of Culture has condemned the contents of a book which is a work of literature. Libyan authorities should take all necessary measures to protect the life and the safety of the writers, editors, and all those involved with the book, and take effective steps to investigate and prosecute those who are threatening their safety, and uphold the writers' right to write and readers' right to read".

Most recently, on 5th September 2017 another event featuring the book was forcefully cancelled in Tripoli. The event held at Dar Al-Fagih Hassan Arts and Cultural Centre is reported to have been closed by Tripoli’s Rada (Deterrence) force who threw employees out of the building and then padlocked the doors. While the disruption drew sharp condemnation from the organisers, many also hope it proves to be a rallying cry for civil society to defend freedom of speech in Libya.