Are Libyan Politicians Curtailing Freedom of the Press?

Are Libyan Politicians Curtailing Freedom of the Press?

Every time I read a newspaper or watch television in today’s Libya, I’m conscious of what a long way they’ve come since the revolution. A lot of the work the media are doing to keep Libyans informed about current events is inspiring. The huge expansion in privately owned media outlets helped shape the media landscape, increasing the coverage of politics and economics, while opening up to a greater diversity of opinions, including those critical of the government. Needless to say, though, there are still many problems.

The General National Congress, the country’s interim legislature, has just passed a new decree that bans satellite television stations critical of the government and the 2011 uprising against Qaddafi. Human Rights Watch was quick to condemn the decree, which, it says, violates free speech and Libya’s Provisional Constitutional Declaration. "The decree violates freedom of expression because it censors a wide range of speech, including peaceful political dissent, and its broad and vague wording is open to arbitrary implementation," the HRW statement warned.

Media played an integral role in the revolt against the Qaddafi regime in 2011. Under Qaddafi, most Libyans watched entertainment channels beamed into the country by satellite, both in English and in Arabic. Domestic TV channels were popular only during the Ramadan holiday, the only time of the year when Libyan broadcasters showed local content. Since the dictator’s fall, the media landscape, and television in particular, has expanded dramatically, allowing for more diverse voices within Libya to be heard and discussed.

Despite the many advances, though, laws on the press have continued to restrict free speech even since 2011. Observers of the post-revolution media environment have long worried about a shift back to self-censorship, due to the rise of extremist views in Libya and the increase in violence against journalists and activists. Today’s government still has a Media Ministry that is supposed to oversee the sector — itself an indication, perhaps, of the extent to which Libya’s new democratically elected leaders still don’t entirely trust journalists to make their own decisions.

Meanwhile, attacks on journalists and TV personalities are on the rise. In December 2013, a Libyan court fined Jamal al-Hajji, a leading political activist, for "defaming" public officials. In another incident, an unknown group launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the house of the editor of Libya Aljadida, a daily newspaper based in Tripoli, on Jan. 15. These are just two examples of the spreading violence facing journalists in today’s Libya. Despite the increase in internet popularity, the internet penetration rate remains very low (around 17 percent). Libya’s internet service is among the slowest in the world. This means that TV and radio are still the main sources of information for those who are trying to keep up with the extremely fluid situation in their country.

Journalists and businesspeople have launched a large number of new private TV stations over the past two years. Many of the new broadcasters focus on news about Libya’s political scene and its democratic transition, while leaving entertainment to the Arab-language channels beamed into the country by satellite. TV shows such as Arab Idol, X Factor, The Voice, and Turkish soaps, broadcast by networks such as the Dubai-based channel MBC, are among the most popular shows in the country today — despite a fatwa by Dar al Ifta (Libya’s highest religious authority) that advised Libya’s mobile operators and viewers against SMS voting on such TV shows. That most viewers chose to ignore the decree shows clearly that Libyans are willing to challenge the positions of the religious authority on such matters.

After the revolution, Libyans’ viewing options seem to have widened dramatically, but that impression is a bit misleading. Domestic TV and radio broadcasters are all work and no play, concentrating on security, economics, and politics to the detriment of entertainment, which is provided almost entirely by outside networks. (The main exception, again, is Ramadan, when domestic broadcasters strive to provide more non-news shows tailored to Libyan tastes.) The range of political standpoints is broad. Some broadcasters support Islamist opinions, while others push nationalist or liberal agendas — divisions that reflect the general polarization of Libyans’ political views since the revolution. One can only hope that the space for competing voices will continue to expand as Libya moves farther away from the Qaddafi era. In that respect, the lawmakers’ decree is clearly a step in the wrong direction.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.