In Libya, new media freedom is uncertain

A post-Qaddafi abundance of independent news has been followed by violence against journalists

The post-revolutionary euphoria that followed Libya’s 2011 uprising against dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi spawned dozens of new media outlets—at least 69, by some counts. Most of these organizations took the form of independent print publications, followed by television and radio stations, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Al-Assema TV joined the ranks of the new private television stations that sprouted, first broadcasting remotely in 2011 from Tunisia and later making Libya’s capital, Tripoli, its home. Though free from four decades of Qaddafi-era press censorship, new threats against the station and other outlets have emerged.

In March, unidentified gunmen attacked Al-Assema and seized at least five journalists and media workers after the station covered the controversial Political Isolation Law. The station’s coverage of the law—which bars officials from Qaddafi’s government from holding public office—and the station’s perceived political connections to a secular coalition, made it a target. The abductions, which ultimately ended with the captives’ safe release within 24 hours, are illustrative of the fluctuations in the Libyan media landscape, according to Seth Meixner, Libya program director for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which is a media partner with Al-Assema.

“The situation is just not coherent. It changes every day,” Meixner said.

Throughout Qaddafi’s 42 years ruling Libya, he banned all independent media and kept a tight rein on state-owned news outlets. Dissent was quashed, often ruthlessly, giving Libya a reputation as one of the world’s most repressive regimes. In October 2010, a few months before the uprising that toppled Qaddafi, Reporters Without Borders ranked the country 160th out of 178 countries on its press freedom index.

After the uprising, independent media flourished for a short time. But with at least eight journalists abducted by militias that were possibly working for the government in the last four months, Libya’s press freedom honeymoon seems to be over. None of this is terribly surprising, say some experts, who have watched countries like Libya go from dictatorship to sudden democracy, and then to something less than the press freedom that seemed so promising at the outset. Something similar is happening in Egypt.

“People that have been in an information space that has been very controlled have very little understanding of what a free press is,” said Dru Menaker, senior media adviser to the International Research & Exchanges Board, a nonprofit that provides media training in countries in conflict. Just because opposition forces have successfully usurped a dictatorship, said Menaker, “doesn’t mean that it comes naturally” for those who replace the dictator to embrace a free press.

In Libya’s case, the new government is struggling to deal with those who held power under Qaddafi. Unchecked militias—often identified as hard-line Islamist groups—take the position that all traces of the dictator should be removed from the new Libya. And their members are willing to make targets out of reporters if they don’t believe the journalists are on their team.

“People want to get heard, they have a voice, and they need a platform,” Joe Khalil, associate professor of communications at Northwestern University’s Qatar campus, said in an email. While television and radio are the new means that some use for debating public issues, “for others, it just seems that they are keeping and using the weapons to be heard.”

In the days leading up to the passage of the Political Isolation Law on May 5, militia members briefly kidnapped and released reporters for the Free Libyan TV and Al-Arabiya TV who were covering a related government building siege, according to CPJ.

The passage of the law itself is also unnerving, said Chloé de Préneuf, who helped create The Libya Media Wiki, a website dedicated to tracking the growth of Libya’s media landscape and how press freedom is taking shape. She said in an email that the long-term effect of the political isolation law is unknown, but it has sent an initial message about the media’s current safety.

“It takes a lot of courage to report on militias/armed groups these days and seeing the government bow down to this sort of pressure highlights how serious the problem is,” she said.

In some ways, Libyans’ reluctance to embrace the press as the go-to source for discourse makes sense. Some independent outlets have already shut down after failing to find financing. Other new news organizations are surviving financially, but only thanks to the businessmen who own them and push particular political interests.

For those new outlets that do survive, the future is ambiguous. In February, a new media minister took office, promising to promote an independent press but offering few details. And the messages sent by government are often mixed, at best. Last June, Libya’s Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a law that criminalized political speech. But six months later, a newspaper editor was arrested on defamation charges based on Qaddafi-era policies: Al-Ummah editor Amara Abdalla al-Khatabi was arrested for printing a list of 87 judges’ names, saying they were involved in taking bribes and being loyal to Qadaffi, CPJ reported.

A lack of professionalism also makes media vulnerable.

“We opened the door for whoever wanted to publish a newspaper,” said Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, at a Columbia University talk recently. “But the problem is that everyone is saying what they hear,” said Dabbashi. “They are relying on rumors and not facts.”

Meixner agreed. “Objective reporting is a long ways off,” he said. “It’s not very nuanced. It’s either, ‘You’re for us or against us.’” And it’s all made more serious, he said, “because you’re dealing with guys with guns.”

Meixner and other organizations have been working with Libyan news outlets by embedding journalists to teach basic skills and encourage balanced reporting.

In countries that must start from scratch after ousting a long-standing dictator, enthusiasm often outweighs professional skill, said Menaker, of the International Research & Exchanges Board. Those that fill the void may oppose the previous government, but may not understand how to sustain new freedom.

“They may go against the previous system,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that it comes naturally to have a different system.”

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Kathryn Brenzel is a reporter at Law360. She is pursuing a master's degree in digital media at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism Tags: , , , ,