Qaddafi couldn’t stop this reporter

Abdullah Aboathba risks his life to be a journalist in Libya
September 2, 2014

Unbowed Aboathba became a journalist after seeing Kevin Carter’s haunting 1994 image of a starving Sudanese girl stalked by a vulture. (Manisha Aryal)

In January, Abdullah Ali Aboathba, a Libyan television journalist in the southwestern desert city of Sabha, heard from his military sources that militia loyal to former dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi had attacked Tamanhint, a military base 20 miles outside the city. As he dashed out with a driver and a cameraman to document the aftermath, Aboathba passed a convoy of some 40 pickup trucks, returning from the direction of the base. Later, as he and his colleagues made their way back to town, Aboathba feared they would be stopped and questioned by the fighters. He removed the memory card from his camera and slid it into his sock, then called the elders of his father’s tribe, giving them his location, the route he was taking back to Sabha, and the names of the men he had recognized in the trucks.

Sure enough, just outside the city Aboathba’s car was stopped by the fighters who attacked the base. They confiscated his camera and cellphone, accused him of siding with revolutionaries who overthrew Qaddafi, then kicked and beat him repeatedly with iron rods. As his captors began to argue over his fate—the younger ones advocated slitting his throat; the older commanders believed he had value as a hostage—tribal elders called the rebel commanders and threatened to wipe out their families if Aboathba or his colleagues were harmed.

Aboathba’s nose was broken and his body was badly bruised. As his colleagues drove him to the hospital, Fezzan TV, the two-year-old commercial channel that hosts his popular weekly program, repeatedly broadcast news of his attack. Two days later, when Aboathba was released from the hospital, he learned that his mother had gone into shock after hearing the news of his capture. She died 28 days later.

Aboathba remembers the faces of his captors. Some live in his neighborhood. “It makes me sad that they continue with impunity,” he says. “We protect their wives and children when they are not home, and I continue to defend their right to speak.”

Aboathba has been trying to practice journalism in Libya since 1994, when he saw photojournalist Kevin Carter’s iconic shot of a starving girl in Sudan, stalked by a vulture as she crawled toward a United Nations food-distribution center. He saw journalism’s power in that tragic photo. “To me, that photograph presented a stark reflection of hopelessness in a country ravaged by war,” he says.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

For most of the intervening 20 years, Aboathba struggled—first to become a journalist, and then to do journalism that mattered in a country with no tradition of press freedom and a brutal regime that meted out harsh punishment to anyone who tried. But when the Arab Spring uprisings reached Libya in February 2011, ousting Qaddafi and ushering in the country’s first free elections a year later, Aboathba figured his days of being arrested or attacked for doing his job were over.

Instead, nearly three years after Qaddafi’s capture and summary execution, Libya has descended into something that looks increasingly like a full-fledged civil war. Fighting among heavily armed groups—former Qaddafi loyalists, both pro- and anti-government tribal militias, and Islamic extremist groups—is threatening to destroy the fragile post-Qaddafi transitional government. And Aboathba is squarely in the middle of it all, both because of his lineage—his father’s tribe is battling his mother’s tribe, which happens to also be Qaddafi’s tribe—and because he is a journalist trying to cover the story.

Abdullah Aboathba was born in 1969, the year Qaddafi took over Libya in a bloodless coup against King Idris as-Senussi. He was the fifth of 10 children. Growing up, he was fed a steady diet of Qaddafi’s pan-Arab, pan-African ideals, and later his intense dislike of the West. The Green Book, a thin volume of the leader’s political, economic, and social manifestoes was required reading for all Libyans, including schoolchildren. “We spent hours trying to make sense of The Green Book,” Aboathba says with a smile. “I’m not sure I ever understood it.”

His father was a security guard in a government garage, and his meager income was barely enough to feed and clothe the family. Aboathba knew early that he had to learn a trade to help out, and enrolled in a technical-vocational school in Sabha to train to become a mechanic. In his spare time he doodled and dreamed of becoming a writer and an illustrator of children’s books.

Bad to worse Smoke fills the sky over Tripoli after rockets fired by one of Libya’s militias strike the capital’s main fuel depot on August 3. A multifaceted struggle to fill the power vacuum left by Qaddafi has pushed the country to the brink of civil war. (Sabri El Mhedwi / Corbis)

In December 1986, when Aboathba was in his last year of vocational school, the governor of Sabha visited his school and announced that the senior class would be flying to Tripoli to participate in a cultural festival. Aboathba still remembers his excitement as he and his fellow students were issued military uniforms and driven in pickup trucks to a military airbase: “Not many of us had even been close to an airport before, and here we were, flying to Tripoli in a Boeing 727!”

When they landed, though, it was not in Tripoli but on Libya’s southern border with Chad. The students were each given a carpet, a blanket, and an AK-47, and trucked to Quadi Doum, a desolate, boulder-strewn area in the Aouzou Strip. “To be scouts and frontline defense for the Libyan Army,” Aboathba says.

Since its independence in 1951, Libya had been fighting off and on with Chad over ownership of the mineral-rich Aouzou Strip. The 1986 battle that Aboathba had been conscripted to fight was the last leg of what came to be known as the “Toyota War,” after the pickup trucks, tricked out with machine and antiaircraft guns, that were used as fighting vehicles. Libya retreated after it lost one-tenth of its army—some 7,500 men—and more than a billion dollars’ worth of military equipment. The International Court of Justice eventually awarded the Aouzou Strip to Chad in 1994.

In 1987, Aboathba returned from the war a broken teenager. “We were taken to fight in a war we did not understand, forced to kill people we did not even know,” he says. Two of his cousins, also students, had been killed in the fighting. Student Victims of Chadian War, a welfare group set up in 2012, has compiled a list of 860 students dragooned to fight from the country’s south alone.

The regime issued high-school diplomas to the students who had been forced to go to war, but Aboathba was too traumatized to start college. He began an apprenticeship with a local billboard painter, and was still doing that work seven years later when he saw Kevin Carter’s photo in a newspaper. “If I had to pinpoint one event in my life that jolted me out of the postwar trauma and made me take up journalism, it has to be the moment that I saw that photograph,” Aboathba says.

So in 1995, when the University of Sabha launched its mass communications department, Aboathba enrolled. Four years later, he was among the first 12 to graduate. He joined the state-owned Al Sharara newspaper as a writer and cartoonist.

Libyan media have always been treated as an extension of the state. In fact, Qaddafi’s Green Book situates journalism in the narrow confines of his political philosophy: “The press is a means of expression of society and is not a means of expression of a natural or a corporate person. Logically and democratically, the press, therefore, cannot be owned by either of these.” Under Libya’s press code, anyone who produced news that could “tarnish the country’s reputation or undermine confidence in it abroad” could be imprisoned for life, and those advocating “theories or principles aiming to change the basic tenets of the national constitution or the basic structures of the social system, or aiming to overthrow the state’s political, social or economic structures,” could be put to death.

Aboathba chafed against state control. While he was relatively free to cover cultural and socioeconomic issues, he found himself increasingly frustrated with the rampant corruption in his city. “There was abuse of power in every department,” he says. “And no one could say anything because there was no accountability.”

In 2003, following the lifting of a decade of UN sanctions—imposed when Libya refused to cooperate with the investigation into the Lockerbie bombing in 1988—the regime loosened its control of media content a bit. Aboathba started to notice investigative pieces about budget shenanigans and financial irregularities in newspapers in Tripoli and Benghazi, and convinced his editor that it was time to nudge some boundaries.

Aboathba’s first attempt was a piece about Sabha’s education department hiring unqualified teachers. When the story appeared, Aboathba was arrested. He says he was tied to a chair, his hand was electrocuted, and he was forced to drink his own urine. He was released only after he agreed to not write about corruption again.

“But once I started, I just could not stop,” Aboathba says. His editor, who sympathized with him and appreciated his tenacity, agreed to help. Aboathba would write indirectly, without naming names. If the authorities cracked down again, though, Aboathba was on his own.

He wrote a story about how the directors of a local hospital were spending money budgeted for the improvement of facilities and patient care on lavish personal entertainment. It drew a warning from the government, but nothing more.

Emboldened, Aboathba published a more ambitious story a few months later about budget chicanery in the local governor’s office. Immediately after the story ran, Aboathba received a letter from the governor’s office informing him he that he should no longer come to work or write stories. He would, however, continue to receive his salary, about $300 a month. This apparently was a fairly common strategy under Qaddafi for silencing critics. “It was an effective way of doing away with noise-makers,” Aboathba says. “Writers will wither and die when you take away their pens.”

Aboathba did not return to billboard painting. He and some other journalists from around the country who had similarly been barred from writing formed an association, a place to socialize and vent. And between 2005 and the start of the revolution in February 2011, Aboathba represented Libya in the Arab Journalists’ Union.

In the months preceding the revolution, with the shockwaves from the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings roiling the region, Qaddafi eased restrictions on the media even further. Libyan journalists were now allowed to tackle formerly taboo topics, such as security, immigration, citizenship, and student politics. Libyan journalists refer to this as the “brief golden age” of journalism.

Aboathba approached a local TV channel and offered to produce a positive program on social issues. Ragmal Mihan (Although Life Is Difficult) debuted in March 2012. The first segment was about an affluent man in Sabha who had bought a bicycle so he could drop his daughter at school. It seemed apolitical, but Aboathba included footage of long queues for gas in a city so close to the southern oil fields. The next segment was ostensibly about a family-run bakery, but this time the subtle subtext was about foreign workers starting to leave Libya, forcing businesses to rely on family members to keep things running. Similarly, another installment was, on the surface, about groups of older women learning to use guns. But it really was about women taking up arms to defend their families as young men went off to fight with, or against, the rebels in Benghazi and Tripoli. “I could not beat the system, but I thought I could get away with this if I was seen to be going along with them,” he explained.

It was a clever idea, and the show was immediately popular. But as the rebels began to make inroads in the south, state media directors in Tripoli wanted programs that celebrated the Qaddafi regime. They asked Aboathba to change the name of his show to, Although We Are Attacked By Our Enemies, We Keep Living, a reference to NATO airstrikes that were starting to weaken the government. Aboathba refused, and quit.

Aboathba has been with Fezzan TV for the last two years and hosts With and Among People, a primetime program that airs every Thursday. Fezzan, a satellite channel launched soon after the regime collapsed by a businessman from Aboathba’s father’s tribe, is part of a wave of privately owned TV operations that flooded Libya in the wake of Qaddafi’s ouster. Libya Media Wiki, an online platform that tracks post-revolution media, lists close to 20 television channels, 200 newspapers, and 200 radio stations registered in the year 2012 alone. Twitter feeds and Facebook pages of media personalities from across the political spectrum are also popular with Libyans, who patiently wait to connect to the country’s painfully slow internet every day.

Libyans have welcomed these new outlets, even those affiliated with tribes and political parties. There is a general consensus that a pluralistic media with a multitude of voices is better than no media, or just state media. But despite public goodwill, the media sector still has to define its role in the country. Many talk-show hosts and commentators have launched new careers in radio, television, or print using tribal connections or political platforms, but their lack of training and professional experience means that the “journalism” they produce is often unprofessional and feckless. Talk-show hosts, for instance, shy away from asking tough questions and guests skirt controversial topics and avoid nuanced discussions.

Even though the interim constitution voids the Qaddafi-era laws restricting the press and guarantees freedom of expression, Libya’s transitional government has failed to erect a framework to enforce that freedom and facilitate the development of an independent, professional media. So for now, the Libyan press is free in name only, as Aboathba learned in traumatic fashion last January.

In some ways, the effort to define the media’s role in the new Libya has been hindered by the same divisive forces that are fueling the fighting in the country. In 2013, the government adopted the Political Isolation Law, which bans anyone connected to the old regime from serving in the new administration or any state agency, including state-run media. That same year, media stakeholders met three different times to discuss the legal and regulatory framework required for a professional press corps. These meetings produced little progress, devolving into arguments between those who had positions in the Qaddafi regime and the new crop of media personalities who believe a purge is necessary. For now, both sides seem willing to wait until a new constitution is put forth, hopefully later this year.

Aboathba, once again, is in the middle. His colleagues from both sides of the media divide aren’t sure where he fits. Some label him a co-conspirator of the old regime, based on the fact that he once worked for the state newspaper and television. Others are wary of his involvement in the emerging media, as a columnist for the weekly Fezzania newspaper and a host at Fezzan TV. Still others see him as an opportunist who has no place in the new Libya. “I fought in a war, lost my youth, was punished for my stories by the Qaddafi regime, and was tortured again for my work after the revolution,” Aboathba says, dismayed by the criticism. “I appear on my shows in borrowed coats and ties, and have always raised my voice against injustice and corruption.” If that is opportunistic, he says, he happily accepts the label.

In a country with no tradition of independent media, building one will take time. It will also take “opportunistic” journalists who are courageous enough to keep pushing the boundaries.

Manisha Aryal spent three months in Libya earlier this year training broadcast journalists. Mahdi Al-Madani, a Libyan human-rights activist and English-language teacher, was Aryal’s fixer and translator for this piece.

Manisha Aryal is a media-development specialist based in Washington, DC.