Libya’s media fights for freedom

As the nation prepares to hold first post-Gaddafi elections, journalists lament absence of legal protections.

Abdulrazag El-Aradi
Journalists angry over delays in drafting a law that protects them face NTC member Aradi [D. Parvaz/Al Jazeera]

Tripoli, Libya – In its first elections since the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya will begin its foray into democracy by selecting an assembly tasked with writing the country’s constitution.

But as the adrenaline rush of revolution wears off, a long slog remains ahead to establish a new state and strike that elusive balance between freedom and order.

The country’s media has been forming at breakneck speed, trying to sort out industry standards and ethics, professional organisation and accountability. It has not been easy.

Libya’s fledgling media has done a comprehensive job of covering the predictable snafus with the country’s new electoral system, but it remains to be seen if it will have adequate legal protections to aggressively report on the mostly unknown candidates and their unproven political parties.

What’s at stake is the country’s constitution – the very thing that could determine the future of Libya’s media rights.

Khaled Gulam, director of training at the government centre for supporting media, said that while Libyan media is experiencing more freedom than ever before, nothing guarantees that those freedoms will last.

“I don’t think there are any legal protections now for journalists,” said Gulam, who has been organising workshops to teach reporters how to cover political campaigns and elections.

“We don’t have a constitution, there’s no kind of law that can protect you,” said Gulam.

“The general situation for journalists now is not very encouraging.”

Fight for independence

The previous regime has left its mark on journalists, with little trust in the state and even less in those the state tasks with managing state media.

There is currently a fragile détente between journalists who seek assurances of freedom and independence and the National Transitional Council (NTC).

However, there are occasional flare-ups.

Last month, dozens of journalists gathered at the NTC headquarters and demanded that such a law  – they’d been waiting for since December – be drafted and signed.

Former Libya TV reporter Safwan Abu Saad, fury etched across his face, was practically nose-to-nose with Abdulrazag El-Aradi, a member of the NTC’s media committee, as others jostled and shouted, accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of having a hand in the NTC’s decisions regarding the state media.

When I looked at Article 37 I was pleased with the reaction – I went to the newspapers and the news sites and I read the opinions of intellectuals and those who influence the opinions of others, and there was total agreement that this law is a disaster.

– Atia Lawgali, deputy culture minister

“The idea that we don’t have independence and that state media is controlled by and used for spreading the propaganda of a particular party is not right,” said Saad.

After angry words in the lobby, the journalists moved into a hall where Aradi and Othman Bensasi, the administrative director of the NTC, fielded questions in a more orderly, if still heated, fashion.

“Our goal is to make our national media free of government control,” said Hassanedine al-Tayeb, a veteran of several television stations.

“No closing of mouths!”

Several reporters spoke to Al Jazeera about these concerns, presenting documents and photos to support claims of illegal dismissals and of politically motivated meddling in editorial policy.

The NTC ultimately signed off on two new orders a few days later – one creating a Supreme Media Council tasked with ensuring that the state media operate, and another replacing the heads of all five state TV channels and the state media centre.

Journalists have protested the formation of the council, rejecting the NTC’s decision. Even within the NTC, the decision, which is contrary to goals the NTC articulated for Libya’s media, do not sit well.

“I’m a member [of the NTC], but I don’t think the decision was done the right way,” said Abdulrazag El-Aradi.

“The media in Libya has been totally destroyed, and I don’t think there will be professionalism running the media in the very near future…people in the previous regime are still in the media,” said Aradi.

“In order for us to have a media like what the free world has, this will take years.”

Vague censorship law

While the NTC has yet to pass a law that protects the media, it has passed a series of laws under Article 37, which states that speech glorifying Gaddafi, insulting the revolution and Islam, and weakening the morale of Libyan citizens, are punishable by imprisonment.

The laws have been slammed by domestic and international rights groups, which are pushing for a repeal of the law.

Although the NTC drafts laws that apply to all segments of Libyan society, including the media, dealing with the country’s journalists is currently the task of the ministry of culture and civil society.

“This law to me, it is a joke,” said Atia Lawgali, deputy culture minister.

“When I looked at Article 37 I was pleased with the reaction – I went to the newspapers and the news sites and I read the opinions of intellectuals and those who influence the opinions of others, and there was total agreement that this law is a disaster,” said Lawgali.

“That’s why I tell you, it’s going to change … ‘glorifying Gaddafi’. Who cares? Gaddafi is dead. This is a sign of weakness from the NTC.”

NTC spokesman Mohamed Harizi told Al Jazeera that the NTC’s legal committee was working on clarifying Article 37, not repealing it.

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With the vaguely worded law still in effect, some wonder if the Libyan future of Libya’s future may look a lot like its past.

“My only best hope is that these laws are shot down, that the new assembly will annul them,” said Sami Zaptia, managing editor of the Libya Herald, who added that protecting the revolution isn’t adequate justification for the law.

“All those young people who have changed into civilian clothes and put their guns away will change again, pick up their guns and protect the revolution. The revolution enjoys the support of the majority of the population.”

But the worrisome laws aside, he isn’t optimistic about the Libyan media’s coverage of the elections, given that it has little experience in being able to report on political parties, which were outlawed under Gaddafi’s regime.

“Most Libyans don’t understand anything about them. They don’t understand who is standing, what they’re standing for. They’re confused by the constituencies, by the list system…it’s just too much to take in,” said Zaptia.

And the consequences, he said, could be grave.

“We’re going in the unknown – a big black hole – we’ve never done it before. We don’t know how it’s done, we don’t know how to do it best,” said Zaptia.

Asking hard questions

Although it’s readily acknowledged that building Libya’s new infrastructure will take time, some journalists are running out of patience by the inability to pass a law guaranteeing the media – especially state media – editorial freedom and independence.

Journalists – and those who train them – shared their concerns over potentially being targeted by Libya’s many armed militia groups. They also worry about the government, which says it supports a free media, but can revert to the old ways when reporters push for answers.

Louis Abelman, co-founder of the Small World News, which provides training to journalists in Libya, said there are more immediate threats to the media than any law the NTC could draft.

“My thinking is that actually, there’s less of a problem in establishing legal protections for the media and pushing against NTC decisions. That’s not really a problem. To my mind, it’s more like, whoever has armed capabilities is the one you can’t go up against.”

Reporting on the armed groups as well the NTC and new ministers is not easy.

“It’s a challenge,” said Muftah Belleid, managing editor of Al-Osboh newspaper.

“We’ve had this experience with some ministers where some of them actually get annoyed the press. Some of them have insulted some journalists, but this is our duty as the press,” said Belleid, who adds that there is still “a sense of dictatorship” in Libya.

“But we won’t replace one dictator with many dictators,” he said of Libya’s new government.

“If there will be a law that will limit the media, [we] will not allow it,” said Mustafa El-Tani, Al-Osboh ‘s editor-in-chief, adding that censorship and oppression will no longer be tolerated.

Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @Dparvaz

Source: Al Jazeera