Building Libya’s new media ‘from a void’

After decades of being under authoritarian rule, the country’s media struggles to find a free, independent voice.

al huni
Good reporting practices are key as Libya is 'suffering from the spreading of rumours', said Huni [D.Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

Tripoli, Libya –
Going from being a country with a highly controlled press to one that has free, independent and functioning media in roughly a year is a tall order. This is true even for Libyans, who, last year, did what seemed impossible, and freed their nation from Muammar Gaddafi’s iron grip.

But Gaddafi’s four-decade rule has left its scars everywhere, including the nation’s newsrooms, which, for so long, acted as nothing more than the propaganda machine of the “Brother-Leader”.

Despite the initial revolutionary surge of entrepreneurial journalists, finally free to report on the horrors of the Gaddafi era, what remains is a struggle to understand the type of media a budding democracy needs – and what it takes to build it.

Many of the post-revolutionary efforts – newspapers, magazines and blogs – have fizzled away, although a core group of journalists, veterans and upstarts alike, remain.

“Every single person wanted to start their own magazine, their own station,” said Alaa El-Huni, a member of 1Libya , a non-profit organisation that focuses on supporting civil society and independent media in Libya.

“It took us a long time to learn that there’s a huge learning curve, and there’s a huge grade of reverting back to normal figures.”

That’s what the media here is being built on – will and enthusiasm, rather than a foundation of best practices and know-how.

“I guess you could say we were like a Coke can you shake,” said Sami Zaptia, managing editor of the Libya Herald news website.

“We wanted to let it all out.”

Gaddafi as editor

And there was a lot to let out.

Mohamed El-Huni was a presenter at Al-Libya TV , one of Gaddafi’s state television channels.

Huni was no stranger to the red lines. He told Al Jazeera about the time when Muammar Gaddafi took issue with a segment they aired about the relationship between Egypt and Hezbollah. He made a personal 2am visit to the newsroom to make the point.

Another time, after Huni aired a segment on people who lived in sheds and shanties around Tripoli, he and the entire crew on shift were taken in and interrogated for an entire day – the same day he found out the editor in charge of his section also worked for the ministry of exterior.

After that, there were no more interrogations, said Huni. “Because we stayed away from anything sensitive.”

On February 18, 2011, he caught an Al Jazeera broadcast of the chaos that was breaking out in his country. Knowing what his station wasn’t reporting, Huni said he couldn’t possibly go back to work there.

“It would be like stabbing my country in the back,” he said.

He is now a presenter at Al-Asima TV , a privately owned station, where he also hosts a political show. He said he doesn’t feel like anyone is controlling him, but that doesn’t mean that things are ideal.

“The first thing is that as much as there is freedom, there is a lack of security for reporters,” said Huni, adding that this has made him more cautious in what he reports and how he reports it. But many of his colleagues are less experienced.

“The new journalists – they have good intentions for Libya, but they don’t know how to discuss certain subjects, and with their lack of professionalism, and they end up creating a bigger problem than the one they were trying to report,” said Huni.

And the chasm between the number of new reporters and experienced editors is huge, as Huni said there are roughly 15 TV stations in Libya now, where there used to be only two major news channels.

A new national journalists’ association has been formed, and Huni said that the group is working specifically to address this issue.

“We need to come up with guidelines for journalists and also tell them how they can protect their rights,” said Huni.

Everything is a startup

Like the hundreds of homeless families who have found shelter in the wasteland of Gaddafi’s bombed-out compound, all of Libya is essentially living in, and with, the disaster that more than four decades of isolationist, authoritarian rule created.

And creating a robust media culture from this wreckage has its challenges for people such as Zaptia, who worked for the Tripoli Post for roughly a decade.

He said many of his articles were never published under the highly restrictive Gaddafi regime, which was routinely ranked by international rights groups as being among the most harshly censored, repressive societies.

“It was very frustrating being a writer in a state-owned, state-controlled publication. As soon as the revolution happened, I wanted to start my own newspaper, be my own boss,” said Zaptia. But that’s not as easy as it first seems.

“We’re starting from a void … We’re starting from zero – that is a challenge. There hasn’t been a tradition of a free, independent press for, some would say, roughly 40 years. So we don’t have that tradition, that culture. And that’s not easy, building a tradition, a culture, overnight,” said Zaptia.

He says he started an English language news site because he was frustrated that most of what was being reported on Libya was being done by foreigners, and generally, from a distance.

The people who might be in the best position to report on Libya are Libyans, but they are also the least trained to do so as journalists.

There’s currently no institutional training for journalists in Libya, although enabling a free and professional media is something the National Transitional Council (NTC) has stated as a priority. The prime minister’s office has also made a point of being more responsive to the media, with regular press conferences to address concerns.

A small talent pool – coupled with the fact that no-one these days wants to pay for advertising – means outfits such as Libya Hearald are struggling to survive. Zaptia can’t pay his writers and runs Libya Herald from a tight office space in the Damascus district, where dividers create the illusion of several offices in a single room and things are stacked atop each other.

“We’re all subsidising [the site] right now, hoping that things will get better,” said Zaptia.

A patchy approach

Most of the training and development work in Libya is done by local and international non-profits, which can lead to a rather sporadic, uneven approach to training.

“This is very much on a civil-society platform,” said Alaa al-Huni. The challenges are so overwhelming that organisations such as 1Libya have had to pull back and focus on one small project at a time – say, running photojournalism workshops.

“I’ll be honest with you – not enough is being done and it’s very patchy,” said Huni, whose phone buzzed and chimed non-stop during our interview. The fighting might have stopped, but Huni is still in the trenches.

“There’s a lack of understanding of even a basic code of ethics that comes with journalism – there’s a lot of responsibility that journalists have.”

Teaching people about vetting sources – especially when using social media – is also a mandate, although it might represent the less glamorous, back-end work that Huni said most aren’t interested in.

This is a problem, because, as Huni said, the most credible media source right now in Libya is social media.

“People believe what’s written on Facebook, they believe what’s written on Twitter. It’s faster, and there are so many different thoughts and opinions coming into it that the net result is that it might be, to some extent, less biased and more accurate,” he said.

There’s really nothing available in terms of formal internships at media organisations here, and there is no government-backed initiative to help support the creation of a free, independent media.

“We believe this is critical to the success of a democracy, critical to establishing a transparent government, an accountable state … there is a need for a free media – it can no longer be controlled or censored to that extent,” said Huni.

Not waiting for government support

Still, despite the enormous obstacles that stand in the way, those who want to can find a way to learn key newsgathering skills.

Mohamed Essul, 24, and 19-year-old Majdi Al-Nakua have both been trained in Alive in Libya, a project of US non-profit Small World News, to report and film, edit and produce short news clips.

They are now helping Small World News teach others those same skills in hopes of building their country’s media.

“Libya has many talented people, but they need the support to be professional … and not to use the agenda of the government or the agenda of those who want to control the media,” said Essul.

Both men say they don’t feel they’re getting any help from the NTC.

“But I’m not waiting for support from the NTC,” said Al-Nakua.

“They haven’t done anything – they haven’t done anything good, and they haven’t done anything bad. They’ve just stood there.”

After getting the training, Al-Nakua said the biggest hurdle was “building trust – being trusted among the people”.

Brian Conley, co-founder of Small World News, has run similar programmes in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the goal of the programme is to “create something that could be an inspiration or a direction to Libyans as to how to produce something different, but was produced by them, by Libyans”.

When they came to Libya last year, Conley said their role was to provide training and advice.

“Near the end, we were hardly doing anything at all – we were just producing back-end support. Everything else is being done here, by Libyans – the story concepts, the shooting – they were doing it all.”

Still, there seems to be a slight crisis of confidence.

“I think Libyans recognise that they can do it, but not yet that they can do it themselves,” said Astrid Schipper, Libya media support programme coordinator at the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.

“They are watching Al Jazeera, and they are watching BBC , and they are watching whatever Arabic language international station they can get,” said Schipper.

“But the fact that a national media can be trustworthy and interesting? That still has to grow.”

Follow D.Parvaz on Twitter: @Dparvaz

Source: Al Jazeera