What’s going on in Libya? Ask a local

A Libyan protestor carries a placard depicting a portrait of general Khalifa Haftar during a demonstration in support of the army and against the UN-backed unity government in the city of Benghazi on March 18, 2016. (Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s shaping up to be a pivotal week in war-torn Libya, but you’d be hard-pressed to read a headline about it. Over the weekend, members of a UN-sponsored “unity government” were rumored to be flying to Tripoli from nearby Tunisia to take over the country from the two rival factions now in charge. Instead, one of the factions closed the capital’s airspace, apparently to prevent the new government from landing, and local militias declared their intentions to fight the takeover.

Yet, other than wire stories, English language media has reported only passingly on the rising tensions. Insecurity and a notoriously difficult visa process means many media outlets can’t base a correspondent in Libya long-term. Most cover the country irregularly if at all, relying on a handful of scrappy freelancers and local stringers. As a result, though its 2011 revolution was one of the biggest stories of the Arab Spring, Libya remains one of worst-understood countries in the region. This is true despite Libya’s leading role in many stories beyond its borders. The country of only six million has become a political football in the US presidential campaign, a frequent port of departure in the Mediterranean migration crisis, an emerging battlefield for the Islamic State, and an important player in the ongoing oil price crash.

 

For the past five years, one of the go-to sources for Western media in Libya has been Hassan Morajea, a former medical student from Benghazi who worked as a translator for foreign reporters who streamed into the country during the 2011 revolution. Now just 22, he left school to work as a fixer and stringer, and since 2014 has reported from Libya for Al Jazeera, The Telegraph, The Washington Post, Middle East Eye, the Australian Broadcasting Service, and The Wall Street Journal.

Based between Tripoli and Tunisia, Morajea has also built a reputation for being able to humanize Libya’s complex, often disheartening news. He gained attention when, still a teenager, he authored a heartfelt open letter to the family of slain US ambassador Chris Stevens and, in 2014, when he explained Libyan factionalism to Public Radio International listeners by comparing the country’s political maneuvering to Game of Thrones.

Morajea spoke to CJR about the obstacles to covering one of the world’s most dangerous, difficult stories, and what he thinks the media is missing in Libya. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Why is Western media struggling to cover Libya?

It’s very dramatic, so there’s always something happening. But it’s also very continuous, so it’s a lot of the same thing happening over and over and over again. When you get someone on the ground, he’s going to get a bit of drama, he’s going to get a bit of fighting going on, but if you read the stories they all kind of read the same—threats of ISIS growing, militias still fighting among each other, and a split government. I can understand why Western papers aren’t putting so much effort into Libya, because it really is just a rotating cycle of the same thing day in, day out.

Are you surprised that foreign newspapers rely on stringers like you to do some of the most difficult work in places like Libya?

I can understand why Western media would want locals to do the frontline stuff, because the [heart] of the matter is that it’s safer. [We] can blend in, be less of a target. And especially when you’re from that area, whether it’s tribalism or family [ties], that can help keep you safe. I’m from the east, grew up in Tripoli, a lot of my family is from Misrata, so that element helps get you access to things because when you’re on a front line, the last thing militias need is someone they don’t trust with them. When people realize you’re from this or that family it helps them relax, because they say “Oh yeah, we know those guys, they’re a decent family, you’re fine.”

Even though you might also be from The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal?

The truth is, not too many people in Libya know what The Wall Street Journal is.

It feels like a lot of the important complexities of the situation aren’t getting across in most Western reports.

When I was working for [UK newspapers] they gave you 300 words. If you have 300 words once a month, you’re not going to understand, and a lot of the reporting will be very vague. If you over-generalize and put all the extremist Islamists in one camp, which is something a lot of journalists do, that’s definitely a big mistake.

For example, if you look at Benghazi, there’s a group called the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council. These guys are an alliance of different Islamist-leaning militias, including Ansar al-Sharia, who attacked the US compound back in 2012. They’re fighting alongside ISIS in Benghazi. So what a lot of people do is they put [ISIS and the Revolutionaries’ Council] in the same camp because they are fighting [on] the same side. Both are fighting General Haftar, who is the general who declared war against extremists in Libya.

The problem is these two groups are actually very much against each other. In one ISIS propaganda video, ISIS actually puts up the flag of the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Council next to the American flag when they’re trying to show viewers who their enemies are. You’ll find on some front lines where they’re low on numbers, they’ll stand together, but it doesn’t mean they’re fighting for the same cause.

How do you convey those details, and their relevance, to readers outside Libya?

The international community’s plan for Libya is for everybody to unite against ISIS. It’s a great plan. ISIS in [the Libyan city of] Sirte is a great target to try and unite Libya, like they did in 2011 with all the different factions against Ghaddafi. But what happens after that? There are always divisions.

That’s what makes it very confusing, very unpredictable, and when it’s a lot of that over and over again, honestly I just don’t think readers are very interested.

As a reporter often based in Tripoli, how do you stay safe?

The biggest problem with Libya at the moment is it’s just awash with all these different militias who, the second you start questioning any of them, you’re putting yourself in a lot of danger. I see reporters coming in and out of Libya getting only little snippets of things, but being able to ask the harder questions because they’re not there all the time.

Is that why you split time between Tripoli and Tunis now?

I’m in Tunis to work with BBC Media Action. It’s a training program for Libyan journalists. At the same time, we’re producing news on Libya. So it’s reporting on Libya for Libyans, and all by Libyan journalists.

Can you explain some of the sensitivities you face dealing with local sources?

Sometimes it’s a quote, where you’ve quoted somebody criticizing somebody else. Even if you get that other person’s perspective, [sources] still see it as, “Why did you allow him to say such a thing?” It’s seen as your fault.

About a month ago, the Libyan army, Haftar’s forces, started making advances in Benghazi and pushing back against the more extremist elements in the city. We had gotten the word from Haftar’s forces, and they’d said, “We’re moving forward.” So we thought, let’s call the other side and see if they are in fact retreating. When we called the other side, regardless of what they said, some of our journalists who are based in Benghazi started getting threats from the army, saying, “How dare you even speak to the enemy?”

That’s one of the most difficult things about Libya. When you’re restricted because the people you’ve just spoken to don’t want you speaking to their enemies, and take it to the point where they will detain you or take you out of the country if you do, or worse.

While working with Western media, have you ever had to tell your editors that you or a source would be in danger if you put a someone on the record, and have you lost the story as a result?

I’m often very careful to not put myself in that situation in the first place. The thing that helps me in working with Western media is the editors are never too interested in the nitty gritty details that get you into trouble. And with all these different [militia] forces, you do meet [senior commanders] who understand journalism. If you get in trouble, you can rely on these guys to get you out of it. Though that doesn’t always work.

Even from inside Libya, you have to do much of your reporting by phone, right? You can’t just waltz into Sirte, where ISIS is in control.

You can’t just waltz into Sirte. But in Sirte, I’m in touch with people on the ground. A lot of that is very vague because they’ve got a lot of concerns about phone taps. But there are a lot of people that leave the city. People go to Misrata for supplies, for clothes. I don’t really understand why ISIS allows it, but they do. I try to meet people on the ground in Misrata.

Do you think that if Western media had spent more time covering Libya right after the revolution, in the 2012-13 period when it was safer and easier to work, things would be different in the country today?

If we had coverage that was detailed, neutral, and that we could trust, then that would definitely change how things are in the country. There would be a way to hold officials accountable. I think that’s the biggest problem. There’s no way to hold anyone accountable.

But if the foreign media were there, to make a difference they would really have had to be there in very big numbers doing very deep coverage. I just don’t see that happening. Even in 2011, there was a lot of interest, but I wouldn’t say it was that in-depth.

Italian troops were on the ground in Libya a few months ago, British soldiers have reportedly been there all year, and US special forces captured a terrorism suspect there who is now on trial in New York. Are Western media obligated to cover Libya because Western governments are so deeply involved?

A lot of these militias are integrated into families, they’re integrated into tribes, and that’s where they get their power from. It makes it very difficult for Western media to come in and work. If American journalists were coming to Benghazi asking the really difficult questions of who was responsible, what happened exactly, I’m pretty certain—if they’d stayed there long enough—they would have come under attack from these militias. You would have more [reporters and sources] killed or kidnapped.

And a local reporter knows how to ask hard questions of Libyan sources, like about the Benghazi story, more diplomatically?

How do you ask such a question diplomatically? How do you ask anything but “who was responsible?” How do you look into that story without trying to find out who was responsible and what happened? Because at the end of the day, that’s what’s really interesting. That’s what the story is about. Somebody was killed and you want to know who killed him, how the attack happened. Who did what, where. I can’t see a diplomatic way of looking at it. That’s the sort of question where, if you start asking the right people, the people who would know, you’re very likely to get yourself in trouble.

So at the moment, one can only do a little bit of journalism in Libya before it gets too dangerous to continue, and you have to back off.

Yes. Absolutely.

Marc Herman is a reporter based in Barcelona. He is the author of The Wizard and the Volcano, The Shores of Tripoli, and Searching for El Dorado, and a co-founder of Deca.