Starting in February 2011, as protests in Benghazi evolved into a nationwide insurrection and civil war, both staff and freelance journalists flocked into Libya to cover the rebellion against dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. For five days in August, pro-Gaddafi gunmen held 36 journalists hostage in a hotel in Tripoli. Then, in October, Gaddafi was captured and killed by rebel vigilantes.
“It was a perfect story when it was happening: accessible, with great characters, illustrating various wider themes,” recalls Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor of Britain’s Channel 4 News and author of Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution. “But it has now descended into confusion,” she says, “and confusion is hard to report.”
During the last two years, as the story’s arc disintegrated into the chaos of a power vacuum, Libya has faded from the English-language news (except for last September’s heavily covered attack on the US consulate in Benghazi). This past July, none of the articles in an eight-part Economist “special report” exploring whether the Arab Spring has failed focused on Libya. And according to search engine LexisNexis, the names Mahmoud Jibril (the leader of the National Forces Alliance, which holds the most seats of any party in the National Congress) and Ali Zeidan (appointed Prime Minister last October 14) have appeared a total of 54 times in the Washington Post and The New York Times combined since the election on July 7, 2012. During the same time period, in the same two publications, the names of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appeared 1,513 and 2,830 times, respectively.
When news stories do mention Libya, the journalist often compares it to or contrasts it with other Arab countries caught in upheaval without going into the details of current Libyan politics and society. Such stories provide a convenient framework for understanding broad similarities between countries. But because even relatively engaged readers have been poorly informed about Libya’s development since the end of the civil war, and because coverage tends to be vague, little resonates.
For instance, one of the articles in the July Economist package was about political Islam in the region. It said, “Libyan and Yemeni voters have also strongly backed Islamists, though both countries are politically too fragmented for any one party to dominate.” It was the only time Libya came up in the piece, leaving the reader to wonder about the differences between Libya’s Islamists and Yemen’s (or Egypt’s, Syria’s, or Tunisia’s, for that matter). On August 14, a New York Times article observed that, “In Libya, armed militias have filled a void left by a revolution that felled a dictator.” It went on to say nothing about the nature of those militias or why they haven’t united to form a national military.
The ongoing crises in Egypt and Syria and those countries’ geopolitical significance are partly to blame for the international deficiency of reporting on Libya, according to Washington Post foreign editor Douglas Jehl.
“As important as the Libya story may be, it has been eclipsed to a significant degree by the transformations unfolding in Egypt and Syria,” Jehl said. “The Post has four full-time correspondents assigned to the Middle East, but we have seen Egypt and Syria as more pressing coverage priorities, given their outsized regional importance.”
Furthermore, though Libya is nominally ruled by an elected government, the prevailing state of administrative and legal turmoil has helped dissuade many news organizations from sending journalists there. Vivienne Walt, a freelance reporter who traveled to Libya intermittently before, during, and since the revolution to write for Time, called the visa process “erratic and a total nightmare.”
Security forces are also obstructive. They sometimes stop journalists on the street to demand nonexistent papers, but they are useless in emergencies. “If you get kidnapped or shot, which is entirely possible, there are no security forces to help you out—you’re on your own,” Channel 4’s Hilsum said via email.
Yet, Jehl said difficulty obtaining visas and harassing police, along with the vivid specters of death and abduction, are also impediments to reporting from Syria. Journalists’ efforts to cover the uprising against Bashar al-Assad have persisted nonetheless. Hilsum explained why editors deem these obstacles worth overcoming in Syria and not Libya: “An editor will send a journalist to a very dangerous place like Syria (or Egypt right now) if it’s going to be the lead story, but it’s hard to justify sending someone somewhere so dangerous if—in newspaper terms—it’s going to be in the middle of page 5.”
On top of this, news organizations are operating with increasingly limited travel budgets and the number of reporters on American newspapers’ foreign staffs has declined by about a third since 2003. Papers often rely on reporting by freelance journalists to plug the holes. But unless they have been sent on assignment, freelance journalists intrepid enough to travel to a perilous place must be willing to jeopardize their safety without guaranteed support or insurance provided by a news organization should something go awry. David Axe, the international collections editor at Medium and a former freelance journalist, and freelance photographer Thomas Hammond, who are traveling to Syria to cover the impact of the conflict on Syrian civilians, are the rare duo taking on such risk.
“We’re probably on our own with no additional support beyond what the US government normally provides,” Axe says. “That’s just a brutal reality and something that independent journalists must contend with.”
Michael Goldfarb, a veteran freelance reporter who contributes to BBC radio, agrees that market incentives encourage freelancers to cover elements of broader stories with readymade audiences. This powerfully deters them from perilous places, like Libya, that are not the sites of the top stories of the moment. “If editors aren’t interested in Libya, there’s no point in trying to sell them the idea in advance,” he argues. “If you find a Libyan story, go report it, write it, and then present it to them on a silver platter wrapped in a bow—then maybe they will be interested. But who can afford to do that? And, given the dangers in Libya, who would take the risk?”