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.”