Is Libya’s media fanning violence?

Libya has seen a blossoming of media outlets, but the media landscape is as polarised as the politics on the streets.

Tripoli, Libya – Since the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, lawlessness in Libya remains widespread, the government is unable to provide security and armed groups refuse to hand over their guns to the state.

Now, the Media Committee of Libya’s General National Congress has claimed the media is also being used as a weapon, accusing the leaders of armed groups of dictating the agendas of some outlets.

Mohammad al-Oraisha, the chairman of the committee, said more controls over the country’s media need to be introduced. “Everyone can see the chaos on the security front. But the same is true of the media, which is highly unregulated and incites violence against state institutions,” he said.

Oraisha admitted that Libya faces bigger problems than the media, but said it would be a mistake to ignore what he described as a misuse of the media on a nationwide scale.

‘Each side thinks they’re right’

After over four decades of autocratic rule by Gaddafi came to an end, Libya’s media landscape opened up. More than 50 television stations, scores of radio stations and hundreds of newspapers and magazines have launched.

Each side thinks they're right and wants to affect the election and affect the constitution. We have an immature state really.

by - Sami Zaptia, Libya Herald

Yet the uncontrolled rush to open new media outlets may be increasing the country’s polarisation. Anyone with money can start a media organisation in Libya – and many of them are suspected of having a political agenda.

Sami Zaptia, the managing editor and co-founder of the English-language, Tripoli-based online newspaper Libya Herald, believes it would have been better if the vacuum left by the state media’s collapse had instead been filled with more neutral, objective sources.

“What you have is the void roughly filled by two main sides – one that is mildly Islamist and the other which is mildly liberal,” he said. “Each side thinks they’re right and wants to affect the election and affect the constitution. We have an immature state, really. With big militias taking sides officially or unofficially, you have a very dangerous mixture.”

Employees of Alaseema Television, which is based in Tripoli and privately owned, largely agreed with that sentiment. The station had opposed the continued mandate of Libya’s General National Congress, which was extended to December this year.

They suspect that two attacks on the building were connected with the channel’s stance. In addition to an attack with a rocket-propelled grenade, security camera footage also showed masked men ransacking and setting fire to the studios last month. A manager’s home was also raided.

Alaseema managed to get back on air and has rebuilt its studios, but no one has claimed responsibility for the unsolved attacks. Its staff seems to accept that just showing up at the office is a risk.  

Mohammed al-Houni, an anchor and executive producer at Alaseema, said it was inevitable that Libyan television stations would promote their own political agendas. “The question is whether the agenda a channel is pushing happens to be for the benefit of the country or not,” he said. “We think Libyans are smart enough to work out the answers for themselves.”

It's a vicious circle of violence. And today journalists are one of the main targets.

by  - Barbara Neault, Reporters Without Borders

Houni said putting out a message has always carried a risk, adding that he was kidnapped himself – though only for a day and released without injury. 

Elsewhere, there have been more than a dozen armed attacks and at least four attempted murders of journalists this year. Kidnappings and death threats are common.

Barbara Neault, Libya’s representative for Reporters Without Borders, said she is alarmed by the increased threats faced by journalists. “It’s a vicious circle of violence. And today journalists are one of the main targets.”

Neault believes that the immaturity of the media is a big factor in Libya’s continuing instability. “There is still an ongoing lack of professionalism in the media field, which is of course understandable after 42 years of dictatorship. The difference between ‘information’ and ‘opinions’ is often not clear to some journalists and can lead to heavy reprisals from various parties that would disagree with what’s being reported.”

‘Freedom is a process’

Critics claim that media legislation passed by the government to date aims only to protect the government.

A decree issued on January 22 orders government ministers to “take the necessary measures” to prohibit the broadcasting of any satellite TV station that “criticises the February 17 revolution, destabilises the country or promotes internal dissent” – legislation that Reporters Without Borders has described as “draconian“.

Neault said the culture of a “free press” was still new to many Libyans and that some authorities were bound to be sceptical of the idea. But, she added, some journalists also should have a more comprehensive understanding of their role in a democratic society.

“They have rights and their role is crucial,” said Neault, “but they also have heavy responsibilities. Freedom is not only a fact or a concept, it is also a process that needs to be practiced, understood and assimilated.”

For his part, Houni – the anchor at Alaseema TV – believes that Libyan journalists deserve more respect. “Even the average citizen is afraid to go out on the street. So you can imagine what it’s like for a journalist trying to tell the truth.”

Source: Al Jazeera