Libyan officials have begun to restrict access among reporters and aid groups to rescue and relief operations in Derna, following protests over the response by authorities to violent floods that swept away entire neighborhoods and left thousands of people dead.
Journalists and aid organizations objected Tuesday to official demands that they stay back, amid a general sense of confusion over what degree of access would continue to be permitted.
A U.N. team “was due to travel from Benghazi to Derna today but were not authorized to proceed,” Najwa Mekki, a spokesperson for OCHA, a U.N. humanitarian office, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Unimpeded, sustained access is essential for humanitarians to do their life-saving work.” She said that rescue, emergency medical and other U.N. teams on the ground continued to operate.
After some reporters on the ground said Tuesday that they had been asked to leave eastern Libya, Hichem Abu Chkiouat, civil aviation minister in the government that runs eastern Libya, denied that orders had been issued to evacuate journalists.
Reporters for Arabic-language channels said authorities told journalists on Monday night they must leave the city entirely by Tuesday. A reporter from al-Hurra said they were told to leave by 8 a.m. Tuesday, and Al Jazeera said it received a 1 p.m. deadline.
Abu Chkiouat said in an appearance on local Libyan channel al-Ahrar that some media personnel had been asked to clear away from search-and-rescue attempts, but only to allow rescue teams to carry out their jobs.
Journalists expressed confusion over their status and concern that authorities could be trying to suppress news of dissent in one of the least accessible reporting environments in the region, as unrest grew over culpability for the dam collapses that led to floods.
Stefanie Glinski, a journalist for Foreign Policy magazine, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter that she was “waiting to see whether we might be able to get permission to report again.”
The impulse to limit foreign access to a disaster area can be born of an effort to avoid criticism. After Morocco turned down aid offers following this month’s earthquake, analysts said that international scrutiny was a source of anxiety for the state.
Libya is ruled by two factions. Derna is in the territory controlled by Khalifa Hifter, who rules the country’s east as the head of Libyan National Army. In the west, the U.N.-supported Government of National Accord rules from Tripoli, the capital.
The city was among the worst hit by last Monday’s Mediterranean Storm Daniel. Local government officials had been calling for an evacuation for days, citing health concerns from the estimated thousands of bodies still to be retrieved.
While Derna does face cholera concerns amid water contamination and a breakdown in services, experts have warned, the National Center for Disease Control, based in western Libya’s Tripoli, said that the need for a full evacuation remains unfounded. The World Health Organization said that despite common conception, corpses do not heighten the risk of epidemic diseases following natural disasters such as a flood.
Access to communications, which had been unstable since the flood last Monday, worsened Tuesday. The state-owned telecommunications company said on its Facebook page that communications took a hit after several fiber-optic cables connected to the east were severed, possibly as “the result of deliberate acts of sabotage.”
An hour or so later, the company said communication was gradually returning as repairs proceeded.
Recent days saw protests, which is rare for a city under military rule, as anger among survivors mounted. Videos shared on social media overnight, which were not independently verified, showed different angles of the same scene: at least dozens of people gathered in a street, egging on and filming a few men atop a building as they flung items off the roof and the balcony of what was purportedly the house of Derna’s mayor at the time of the flood. The crowd whistled and cheered as smoke began to rise from the building
Mayor Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi’s office manager confirmed to Reuters that his house had been set ablaze by protesters. Al-Ghaithi told Arabic-language outlets Monday that he had resigned. Abu Chkiouat said he had been suspended, Reuters reported.
Earlier in the day, more than a hundred people demonstrated in Derna outside a landmark of the city, Sahaba Mosque, many climbing to its golden dome or standing atop a crushed car, chanting against Aguila Saleh, the head of the eastern-based Libyan parliament.
“There is no god but Allah; Aguila is the enemy of Allah,” men chanted, some crying freely.