By: Fatma Elshhati, IPI Staff
IPI FEATURE: Incoming Libyan Government Faces Press Freedom Hurdles
Strong Need for Laws that Protect Press Rights, Journalists Say
By: Fatma Elshhati, IPI Staff
VIENNA, July 11, 2012 – After the first free elections held in Libya's recent history, the country is preparing for a new government that will oversee the creation of a new constitution and, in theory, the institution of democratic values. Former leader Muammar Qaddafi's regime was known for its brutal suppression of dissent and its tight control over the media, which was dominated by state-run media and private media forced to toe the government line.
Now, Qaddafi is gone, but journalists say that the government must pass and implement laws guaranteeing the media’s independence from government control. The state-owned media, which acted for so long as the mouthpiece of the former regime, is of particular concern.
Ibrahem Shibani, editor and founder of the bilingual magazine The Libyan, told IPI: “While we have absolute freedom of the press, including the right to speak and write critically, there is still nothing to protect journalists in the country and nothing yet has been done about this.”
Dr. Said Laswad, chief editor of the Tripoli Post, was more optimistic. On the phone with IPI several days ago, he said that Libyans had entered a “new era in terms of media, characterised by a free press and freedom of expression, an era with no censorship, in which people immediately realised the importance of a free press and started up their own media outlets.”
New Media on the Scene
Last year, 2011, was dangerous for all journalists in Libya, whether they practised from the liberated East or were under considerable pressure in the capital Tripoli. Five journalists were killed during the year, and many more imprisoned and later released.
But the end of Qaddafi’s control over the country and, later, the official liberation of Libya on Oct. 23, 2011, paved the way for democratic values including freedom of expression and press freedom to be established.
Obstacles to forming media outlets were lifted as central power receded - for example the previous bans on publishing in the Berber language of Amazigh or in English. A wave of young Libyans immediately seized the opportunity.
The Benghazi Media Center, where many journalists were based during the days of the revolution, consisted of only a few computers in an abandoned building. Soundproofing involved sticking sponge to the walls. It was dangerous work: Mohammed al-Nabbous, founder of the online channel Libya Al Hurra and one of the citizen reporters based out of Benghazi, was killed by sniper fire in March 2011, one of five journalists to have lost their lives during the conflict.
But despite the risks and a frequent lack of infrastructure or training, new media has bloomed. In the Qaddafi era there were some 19 Arabic papers and three satellite television stations. But since the uprising, a quick tally shows that nine television stations and seven radio stations have been launched, and Internews reported that by July 2011 there were some 120 new print publications.
Long Road to Institutionalising Press Freedom
The Libyan constitutional declaration of Aug. 3, 2011 paved the way for the protection of some rights. Article 13 of the draft constitution guarantees “freedom of opinion for individuals and groups... [and] freedom of communication, liberty of the press, printing, publication, and the mass media”.
In December 2011, Northwestern University in Qatar hosted “Media Vision for Libya: A Good Offices Conference”. Libyans, including key members of the NTC, agreed upon six principles that would serve as a framework for the development of media policy. These included the need for Libya to have a “free, open, and independent media and communications system”. The principles include the need to encourage the formation of private media, ensure the independence of regulatory bodies and transform the state media into independent media.
But in practice, the NTC has yet to form a new and strong legal basis for media freedom. The media-related laws that were initially tabled were deemed by journalists to be contradictory to press freedom principles.
Three separate laws designed to regulate the media were passed in May 2012, though some journalists demonstrated in front of NTC headquarters to protest against what they saw as their exclusion from the drafting process, reports said. The new laws include Law no. 44 (2012), for the creation of a Supreme Media Authority, Law no. 43 (2012) for the creation of a National Press Organisation and Law no. 37 (2012) for the creation of a Broadcasting and Television organisation, according to local news reports.
After the Authority was announced on May 28, 2012, journalists staged a sit-in against what it branded the first step towards state control of media, according to the Doha Center for Media Freedom. Indeed, even some members of the NTC disagreed with how new regulations were put in place, reports said.
In a positive sign for the judiciary, the Libyan Supreme Court declared unconstitutional another law that would have limited free speech – but it is worrying that such a law was tabled in the first place. Law 37/2012, rightly condemned by rights groups, criminalised the glorification of Qaddafi as well as criticism of Libya or the revolution.
As one journalist, Ahmed Bogrin, wrote in an opinion piece for the London-based Al Quds newspaper this January: “Qaddafi's practices remain although we have changed the names.”
The state-controlled Jamahiriya News Agency was dissolved when rebels took the previous regime’s stronghold of Tripoli in August 2011, as was the Libyan Jamahiriya Broadcasting Corporation. At the same time, the General Press Corporation (GPC) was dissolved along with the newspapers it published and monitored, including Al Shams, Al Jamahiria, Al Fajr, Al Jadeed and Azzahf Al Akhder, reports said.
The GPC was replaced by the Press Support and Encouragement Corporation (PSEC), a transitional body which is in charge of organising and “supporting” state-owned print media, and the NTC installed at its head Idris al-Mismari – a writer who was jailed once for 10 years in the 1980s, and again last year for supporting the revolution.
But until his replacement in late June 2012, there was some tension between al-Mismari and other journalists working with the PSEC. Bogrin described an incident in which one state-owned paper, Saba Alyoum, was blocked from publication, and yet another, Al Balad, was banned in April 2012 over a dispute about advertising revenues. This move was criticised by the union of journalists in Tripoli, which called the confiscation “a blatant violation of freedom of thought and expression.”
Al Balad’s editor, Hadi Alkerkouti, told news sources that the paper was also ordered to rename itself Al Balad Al Youm and completely remove all former staff – something he described as “reminiscent of the previous regime”.
Threats to Journalist Safety
The worst recent attacks on journalists haven’t come from the NTC but from rival militias still in control across the country. On July 7, 2012, Libyan cameramen Abdelqader Fosouk and Youssuf Badi were detained by militiamen in Beni Walid while covering the elections for Tobacts TV, Libyan newspaper Quryna reported. Footage aired by Al Wadi TV shows the men saying they were detained for shooting footage in a military area without permission. The commander of a militia in the city of Misrata, Mohammed al-Swehili, warned the journalists’ captors that they must release his fellow Misratis or “forces from all over the country would attack Bani Walid”, reports said.
But in February, it was a Misrata militia – the Saraya Swehli, commanded by Faraj Swehli – that was responsible for the abduction of British journalists Gareth Montgomery-Johnson and Nicholas Davies. The two, who were working for Iran’s Press TV, were arrested and detained and along with three Libyans who were accompanying them. Detained on charges of illegal entry and possible espionage, the journalists were eventually transferred to NTC custody and released almost a month later.
Much of the future will be determined by the efforts of the new government, which has the daunting task of asserting authority across the country, drafting a new constitution, and creating and implementing new, democratic institutions and laws. After every revolution there is a disastrous process of change, Dennis explained, “but ultimately what matters is the big picture.”
“The landscape in Libya remains complex, but I am very hopeful for its future. Embodied by a new sense of nationhood and the commitment of journalists to transparency, I believe that Libya, through commitment, can establish over the long haul a radical improvement,” Dennis said.
“Libya needs to talk to itself and decide on a framework that fits the society's needs and circumstances.”