Combating climate misinformation in MENA’s environmental crises

Middle East & North Africa Special Issue: Naseem Tarawnah brings an access to information focus to his latest regional brief, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.

7 min readOct 10, 2023


From arbitrary media restrictions in covering Libya’s floods, to debunking ‘laser beam’ earthquakes in Morocco, recent environmental disasters in the region underscore the vital role of providing access to timely and accurate information in the region, especially during unprecedented crises.

Libya floods underscore struggle for information access

The impact of last month’s devastating Storm Daniel on Libya’s eastern provinces saw the urgent need for access to information during environmental crises undermined by local authorities, as journalists and activists struggled to report from the flood-ravaged region. In the coastal city of Derna, flashwaters decimated two aging dams, erasing entire neighbourhoods and leaving thousands dead, and thousands missing or displaced.

The UN said most of the casualties could have been prevented if early warning and emergency management systems were in place to facilitate the city’s evacuation. The tragic event illustrates the real human cost of failing to communicate and disseminate vital climate information to people in a timely manner — information that could potentially save lives.

While authorities blamed climate change and ‘God’s will’ for the disaster, human rights groups have called for an independent investigation to ensure accountability in a country mired in a culture of impunity.

“Considering the history of impunity in Libya and the scale of the tragedy, it is essential to conduct thorough, independent, impartial and transparent investigations into the circumstances of this disaster,” said Ziad Abdeltawab, deputy director at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “This investigation should be mandated to assess responsibilities and ensure accountability in relation to the floods and the resulting deaths, injuries and destruction and to make its findings public.”

Hundreds of angry residents launched a protest to demand local authorities be held accountable for their failure to maintain the neglected infrastructure and provide sufficient warning about the coming storm. Libya’s eastern provinces, ruled over by General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan Armed Forces (LAAF), ordered local and foreign journalists to leave Derna a day after the mass demonstration, with authorities blaming them for impeding rescue efforts.

Although the order was rescinded the following day, journalists were instructed not to talk to rescue teams and reported being closely monitored by military media agents, with interpreters ordered by officials not to translate any critical commentary.

Further hampering access to information efforts, internet and phone communications were disrupted in Derna following the protests, with the national telecom company blaming a ruptured optical fibre cable it said may have been “the result of a deliberate act of sabotage”.

Throughout the LAAF’s conspicuous efforts to manage optics and skirt responsibility in a politically divided state, journalists and activists faced arrests for interviews perceived to be critical of the group. Content creator Jamal El Gomati, who was reporting live from Derna after the floods, was arrested by an LAAF-affiliated armed group from his hometown of Shahhat on 17 September and forcibly disappeared for three days, after publicly accusing officials of corruption and responsibility for the disaster.

“The Libyan authorities and those in de facto control of affected areas must ensure that human rights are at the centre of the crisis response and refrain from reprisals against critics,” said Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s MENA deputy regional director. “During times of crisis, a vibrant civil society and independent media are vital to secure survivors’ rights to life, safe housing, food, health and access to information.”

Journalists faced a myriad of other challenges in reporting on the environmental catastrophe. Foreign journalists had their equipment seized at the airport and faced obstacles acquiring security access to the sites. Local reporters had to tackle misinformation during a real-time crisis while also having to deal with repercussions for their reporting long after their international peers had left.

Yet, despite chaos and confusion, journalists and civil society played a vital role in facilitating access to information and combating misinformation. Libyan journalist Mohamed Gurj, a correspondent for the Ahrar Libya TV channel, set up a WhatsApp group to help connect journalists to each other as well as authorities, which he said quickly became a real-time crisis management channel for stakeholders. Illustrating just one of many cases of online misinformation about the floods, the Associated Press fact-checked a widely-circulated video supposedly depicting the devastation in Libya that turned out to be footage from a 2016 flood in Saudi Arabia.

So far, Derna’s mayor, whose house was burned down during protests, has been arrested along with several other officials pending an investigation by Libya’s chief prosecutor.

Combating seismic misinformation in Morocco

In another tragic natural disaster last month, a magnitude 6.8 earthquake hit Morocco’s mountainous rural region of Al-Haouz province, resulting in over 2,900 reported deaths and thousands of injuries. The deadly earthquake in the remote High Atlas mountains was another case where the media worked quickly to provide accurate information during an environmental crisis and debunk the barrage of misinformation that followed.

This included widely circulated fake videos and photos featuring old footage of buildings collapsing in Casablanca, Rabat, and even Turkey, reports that Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo’s hotel in Marrakesh was offering support for earthquake survivors, a video claiming that a ‘laser beam’ from an alien spacecraft caused the disaster, and other misleading information shared online.

As anger grew over the government’s initially slow and tight-lipped response to recovery efforts, Moroccan media were quick to respond to the news wave, establishing crisis teams to relay fact-checked information and provide real-time verified updates from the disaster sites. Agence Marocaine De Presse launched SOS Fake News to monitor and verify earthquake-related information, while Medi1TV launched its own reporting initiative to counter the spread of misinformation.

Amid growing diplomatic tensions between Morocco and France, two French journalists reporting on the devastating event were deported. Marianne magazine’s reporters Quentin Müller and Thérèse Di Campo were arrested from their hotel in Casablanca and taken directly to the airport before being put on a plane to Marseille, without explanation.

The Moroccan government later claimed the decision to expel the reporters was not politically motivated but rather based on their lack of media accreditation, pointing to the 310 foreign journalists, including 16 French media organisations, granted permits to cover the story. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) the deportations were most likely in response to the journalists meeting with the families of political prisoners during their time in the country.

“While several Moroccan journalists continue to be detained on trumped-up charges, foreign journalists are being deported for no good reason. This latest expulsion, a sudden and unacceptable attack on press freedom, reflects a desire to prevent media reporting in Morocco, whether local or international. We urge the Moroccan authorities to respect the work of journalists,” said Khaled Drareni, RSF’s North Africa representative.

In Brief

Palestine: IFEX member the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) marked last month’s International Day for Universal Access to Information with renewed calls for the adoption of an access to information law. MADA has been at the forefront of efforts to introduce the legislation and used the day to call on the Palestinian government to open the doors for consultative dialogue with civil society that would help usher in the much needed legal framework that protects the right to access information.

Lebanon: A planned “freedom march” calling for the protection of LGBTQI+ rights in the country came under attack from unknown assailants in civilian clothes, resulting in several injuries. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on Lebanese authorities to protect reporters injured or threatened during their coverage of the demonstration.

Access to education has been delayed for thousands of Palestinian refugee children in Lebanon’s Ain el-Helweh refugee camp where clashes between factions in the camp that began over the summer have resulted in at least 30 deaths, hundreds injured, and thousands displaced. The armed groups occupied all eight UNRWA-run schools for several weeks before a joint Palestinian Security Forces unit was deployed to guard the schools as part of ceasefire negotiations.

UAE: IFEX joined rights groups in calling on governments to address the UAE’s rights abuses as it prepares to host COP28 this year, amid growing concerns about the country’s strategy to counter criticism of its human rights record. “Climate justice and human rights are deeply interconnected — there cannot be one without the other,” said a joint statement addressed to participating governments at this year’s global climate conference. Rights groups urged delegates to use the opportunity to shine a spotlight on the UAE’s human rights record, and to stand in solidarity with communities on the frontlines working to mitigate the effects of climate change impacts and stop human rights violations in the UAE and across the world.

Spyware on trial: Access Now and IFEX member Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) filed an amicus brief calling on the Oregon US District Court to hold the Emirati spyware company DarkMatter Group accountable for illegally hacking prominent Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul. In a small step towards justice, the court accepted the amicus brief, stating it would be given “the weight this Court considers appropriate.”

“A ruling in favor of hacked activist Al-Hathloul will serve as a beacon of hope for those who have suffered from the merciless use of spyware technologies for far too long, and send a clear message to the purveyors of these dangerous technologies: your time is running out.” — Marwa Fatafta, MENA Policy and Advocacy Manager at Access Now

New & Noteworthy

  • Linguistic rights in MENA: Recognizing the importance of filling the gap in research and advocacy for non-Arabic language communities in the region, Rising Voices launched a new project dedicated to shedding light on six such communities and their respective struggles in the fight for linguistic rights. The IFEX-supported project examines the challenges, opportunities and threats facing Kurdish, Assyrian, Armenian, Nubian, Soqotri and Amazigh languages in MENA, and how upholding their linguistic rights allows these diverse communities to exercise other human rights, including the right to free expression and access to information.
  • Recognizing human rights work: IFEX member Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) was the recipient of the Justice for Journalists Award at the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s Albie Awards last month. SCM co-founders Mazen Darwish and Yara Bader received the award during a ceremony in New York. Detained Iranian journalists Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammad also received the Justice For Women award for their reporting.

Originally published at on October 10, 2023.




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