On February 17th 2011, an uprising in Libya overthrew the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. This stimulated hope amongst Libyan journalists and media practitioners that this change might also lead to an independent and pluralistic media industry. These hopes are now fading, however, namely as a result of the lack of stability that is plaguing the sector as well as the increasing security risks faced by media professionals.
In its 2016 annual report, which ranks 180 countries globally in terms of press freedom, Reporters without Borders (RSF) put Libya in 164th place, down ten places on the previous year. This drop is attributed to the escalation of violations against journalists, the absence of pluralism and independence, and the fragile legislative framework that governs the media industry.
Most Libyan journalists and media practitioners acknowledge that the violations and abuse that now afflict the media industry in the country have reached record heights. They continually voice their concerns on the minefield of risks that journalists undertake as well the increased in targeting of media professionals. The Violations Monitoring Unit, a subsidiary of the Libyan Center for Freedom of the Press NGO, recorded 60 assaults against journalists and media outlets in January and February of 2016 by a number of conflicting forces, groups and tribes.
In the shadow of civil war
The case of the Libyan media truly exemplifies the impact that political conditions can have on the media environment. Following the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, where the media was used as a propaganda tool by the regime, the media landscape experienced a period of openness and diversity in the absence of a dominant central authority. After more than four decades of authoritarian rule, there was a distinct lack of any professionalism or codes of conduct for the new media environment to adhere to. This absence of regulation has seen a lacking in ethical practice and standards in the media. The American Institute for Economics and Peace and Altai Consulting in their report on…stated that “the Libyan public no longer trust the national media. This is as a result of its unprofessional practices, an absence of editorial principles and media ethics, as well as their lack of adherence to internationally recognized standards of practice.”
Three years after the uprising, in July 2014, parliamentary elections were held. This was in the context of a fragile state authority and the absence of proper regulations. These elections saw a shift away from the trend toward supporting Islamist political factions and the re-distribution of power geographically. The east of Libya, represented by the parliament of Tobruk, came under the auspices of commander of the armed forces, Khalifa Haftar and his” Karama” or Operation Dignity; the West was represented by the General National Congress (GNC) and led by the ” Fajr Libya” (Libya Dawn) movement. Armed conflict ensued between the two sides, with militias, tribes and armed “jihadist” groups engaged in hostilities across different parts of the country.
This also saw a number of severe attacks on the media and journalists. According to Tariq Abdul Salam, former president of national television and radio stations, and current editor in chief of the Libyan Cloud News Agency, media outlets were used as propaganda tools by the conflicting parties. He also stresses that “the political divide is clearly reflected in the media “, with media practice ignoring professional values “to the extent where some of these practices are inciting violence and genocide towards certain sections of the population”.
Researcher and media professional Rashid Khechana has noted that the number of Libyan media outlets proliferated during the period of the civil war. He attributes this to the introduction of new investors to the media industry. In addition to the two sides of the conflict, each of which with their own representation and support in the media, political money from across the region and beyond has been pumped into the media. A number of politically-motivated businessmen have also invested in the media landscape as a means of establishing themselves in the political sphere.
Because of the extent of the media’s involvement in the conflict, the media in itself has become a battleground. Conflicting parties have launched a number of violent attacks against the media as an extension to their armed operations. This has included raids and rocket attacks on media premises, the halting of broadcasting on specific channels, the abduction and killing of journalists as well as intimidation and threats.
In March 2014, gunmen stormed the headquarters of the “Al Naba” (النبأ) channel, taking it off air. This followed a bombing of “Benghazi TV” and the storming of “Al Asima” (العاصمة) channel’s headquarters with the kidnapping of three of its employees. The “Libya AlHurra” channel suffered a grenade attack in Benghazi in June of 2014. These attacks were all recorded by observatories and human rights centers and condemned by the international community.
A grim picture
The current situation in the Libyan media can be summed up with the following points:
- The media industry has become a political tool, utilized by the main parties involved in the civil war. This makes it an obvious target by rival powers and derails it from the possibility of professionalism and ethical practice.
- A lack of functioning infrastructure perpetuates the fragile nature of the media industry. This includes transmission and distribution mechanisms, printers, communications networks, duty stations, and logistics facilities.
- Due to the security difficulties and risks, a large number of Libyan media outlets continue to broadcast from outside the country. This sees coverage lack depth and nuance as media practitioners have little or no access to the field.
- There has been a significant increase in financing from across the region – either from foreign governments, or businessmen and political and religious groups, who are seeking to use the media as a part of the political conflict.
- There has been a noted decline in trust of the entire media landscape by the Libyan public.
- The use of the media to fuel conflict and incite violence has become endemic with the spread of hate speech and discriminatory language being rife.
The probability of finding effective solutions to prevent the Libyan media from being used as pawnsin the political conflict and civil war seems limited. This will only be possible if a truce or an effective political settlement is found and the impact of the conflict is minimized. There are, however, some efforts on behalf of international and regional bodies that are helping to alleviate the predicament of the Libyan media system and enabling the foundations for a more professional and less risky media practice.
In June 2016, UNESCO launched its Libyan media reform plan in Madrid, under the slogan “Towards a professional media”. This project brought together journalists, media stakeholders, and media outlets from across the spectrum to agree rules of professional and ethical media practice that would assist in regulating their work during the conflict. A further meeting in July 2016 in Tunisia established guidelines on hate speech. This meeting set editorial principles for covering the conflict, and sought to build a consensus on their adoption by industry stakeholders. In addition, many international organizations have organized workshops and training sessions to draft ethical codes of conduct for Libyan reporters and media professionals.
The Libyan media are also victims of the civil war and political conflict in the country. This conflict continues to target journalists with mass human rights violations. This situation requires a concerted effort on behalf of international and regional organizations concerned with freedom of the press and media to provide the necessary assistance in an effective and sustainable manner.