The field of journalism witnessed a huge expansion in Libya since the February 17, 2011 uprising. Under Qaddafi’s rule, the media was tightly controlled. Freedom of expression was censored entirely Today there are 200 printed newspapers in Tripoli and Benghazi alone, and more than 18 satellite TV channels throughout the country, and the number is only increasing. However, the industry still has a long way to go before it can become a reliable source for many Libyans.
It was thus a promising sign when Libya’s post-revolution interim government moved to guarantee in Article 14 of the Constitutional Declaration (Libya’s transitional roadmap) the "freedom of opinion for individuals and groups, freedom of scientific research, freedom of communication, liberty of press, printing, publication and mass media."
Nevertheless, as Libya moves to bring the security situation in the country under control, media organizations are vulnerable to armed militias that disagree with their editorial practices. Such concerns were validated when gunmen attacked the Alassema TV station in Tripoli on March 8. The station’s offices were ransacked and a number of employees, including journalists, were held hostage for nearly24 hours. The attackers were angered by the TV station’s coverage of the new Political Isolation Law, which would effectively ban Qaddafi-era officials from holding public office.
Despite the huge expansion in the media sector, the government owns only one satellite channel, one radio station, and two newspapers. For some, this is a good sign, because the government doesn’t control the media anymore. Others are arguing that the Libyan media lacks substance, quality, professionalism, and more importantly, regulations. And while there are now many new faces in Libyan journalism, they lack skills and expertise in the field. There is thus an urgent need for professional development and training programs for both individuals and organisations if Libya is to have a culture of responsible journalism.
Libyans are also overwhelmed by the lightening expansion in traditional media outlets (TV, radio, and print media). However, social media (or new media) seems to have attracted the lion’s share of users in Libya. With a population of only six million, Libya was the fastest growing country using Facebook in 2011, and the number of users continues to grow. Unfortunately, Facebook has also become a rumor-mill: Government officials have had to hold press conferences or go on radio to negate some of the serious tales that have spread.
According to Mohanned Oun, a student at Tripoli University, Facebook is the number one source for domestic news for him and his friends. But due to its now-tarnished reputation for delivering reliable information, he now usually turns to either TV or radio to confirm stories. Like many Libyans, Mohanned, is overwhelmed by the plethora of new TV channels available in post-revolution Libya.
Mohamed Altaip, who works for the privately owned Lebda FM radio station, explained that the state-owned media is the least capable of coping with the changes happening in Libya. This is because the old management is still in place — and unable to shake off the Qaddafi-era mentality of running a pro-government editorial policy.
When thousands of people marched in the streets of Benghazi on September 21, 2012 to denounce the attack on the U.S. consulate which killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, state TV aired reruns of the cartoon Tom and Jerry.
On the other hand, privately owned channels and radio stations have improved rapidly in terms of quality and substance of their programs, and are coping relatively well with Libya’s transition. However, many privately owned stations are also becoming mouthpieces for certain political parties and groups, and many Libyans are complaining about the lack of neutrality.
While it’s beneficial to have new media, TV stations with ideological agendas are dangerous for Libya’s democratic transition, because they undermine the viewers and their intelligence by trying to convince them of certain opinions or views without substantive arguments.
The other fundamental issue is the absence of a coherent national charter to act as a framework for media standards. Reda Fhelboom, who works for Libya’s International TV channel, argues that the responsibility is for Libya’s media elites to produce a national charter for journalism that would regulate how the sector operates (Fhelboom is part of a group working on such a project). The issue is particularly important because currently, satellite channels and newspapers are not serving the interests of the public. If the media is not regulated to operate in an unbiased manner, it could seriously complicate Libya’s democratic transition.
The media sector in Libya needs to go beyond the revolutionary coverage period; it needs to co-ordinate efforts in order to be prepared to meet the huge challenges ahead, covering the elections, national reconciliation, and social and political development.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Transitions Libya blogger. Read the rest of his posts here.