NEW YORK — Human Rights Watch has called on Libya to stop blocking access to YouTube and to at least seven independent or opposition websites, saying it was a "disturbing step away from press freedom."
"These websites were the one recent sign of tangible progress in freedom of expression in Libya," the New York-based watchdog's Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said in a statement released late on Wednesday.
"The government is returning to the dark days of total media control."
The watchdog said that the action against the sites had started on January 24 and covered such overseas-based portals as Libya Al-Youm, Al-Manara, Jeel Libya, Akhbar Libya, and Libya Al-Mostakbal.
It said that the sites had become major sources of news for Libyans, particularly on sensitive subjects, as they combined the work of reporters inside the country and journalists abroad.
The watchdog said Libya had also blocked the entire YouTube website after it featured videos of demonstrations in the eastern city of Benghazi by families of detainees who were killed in Abu Salim prison in 1996, as well as videos of family members of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi at parties.
It hailed an initiative by a group of Libyan bloggers, journalists, and human rights activists to share proxy servers to allow access to the blocked sites.
"Libya can stick its head in the sand and try to block the free flow of electronic information to its citizens, but the good news is we all know they?ll fail," Whitson said.
"Whether in China or Saudi Arabia or Libya, citizens will always find ways to exchange knowledge and information, with or without their government?s consent."
The watchdog also criticised Libya over a decision by the state General Press Authority last month to suspend the print-runs of the country's only two private newspapers Oea and Quryna, which as a result now appear only online.
It quoted the authority as citing "professional and substantive deviances" in the paper's output but insisting that arrears in payment not editorial failings were the reason behind the decision to stop printing them.
The two papers, which are closely linked to Kadhafi's son Seif al-Islam who has championed a gradual process of reform in Libya, had covered a raft of sensitive issues, particularly corruption, since they first hit the news stands in August 2007.
"Libyan authorities should be increasing the number of private newspapers rather than stopping their circulation," Whitson said.
"It?s hard for anyone to believe that the government has stopped printing these newspapers because of the relatively minor financial debt it claims, and not because of the content."
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