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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Freedom of speech yet another casualty of the Libyan uprising

Libyan media has lost its voice of freedom, writes Mustafa Fetouri
Libya plunged in to chaos after Muammar Qaddafi's reign ended. Taha Jawashi / AFP
Libya plunged in to chaos after Muammar Qaddafi's reign ended. Taha Jawashi / AFP

Some of the main reasons that drove the Libyan uprising forward in 2011 were freedom of speech, freedom of expression and free media. So how free has Libya been over the past six years?

During Muammar Qaddafi’s era there were only two government-controlled TV channels, five dailies and one news agency. Besides that there was a TV channel owned by Al Ghad Media Company, a semi-private organisation set up by Qaddafi’s son, Saif Al Islam, as part of his drive to open up Libya. Al Ghad also owned a radio station, two dailies and four news sites. All Al Ghad media properties were almost completely free in the sense that they were more critical of the government and ministers with very few taboos.

Ordinary people could, mostly, have their views published or aired nationally if they called talk shows or sent comments to papers. Social media sites were in limited use and occasionally blocked by the government.

Today there are more than 20 TV channels, the same number of radio stations in Tripoli alone, a dozen or so papers and thousands of websites. Social media services including Facebook and Twitter are widely used.

Yet, it is very difficult and sometimes dangerous for ordinary Libyans to express themselves. Journalists and “citizen” journalists can find themselves in dangerous situations if they speak their minds.

Many ordinary Libyans on social media use false names and no pictures in case they could be identified in the real world.

When a journalist goes missing in Libya, it is likely that they will not be traced. There is nobody to talk to about the case since government’s control over the country does not exist. In many instances the missing journalist stays in the dark and his whereabouts are unknown. A well-known blogger, Abdul Moaez Banon, is still missing without trace since he first disappeared some three years ago.

Reporters Sans Frontieres, an international group to protect reporters and journalists, estimates that about 100 Libyan journalists have fled the country fearing for their lives. It believes about 50 have been kidnapped and more than two dozens killed all in the space of six years, excluding the war-related deaths.

A growing number of TV stations have had to relocate to another country or shut down since they could not work safely in post-Qaddafi Libya. Those who remain work under pressure as they have to be very careful about how to report even simple news and what kind of views it reflects. In many cases, callers to live talk shows are cut off in the middle of their sentences, because the presenter might not like what they could be saying even before they said it.

Radio broadcasters have a little more freedom, but the majority are immersed in religious preaching or discussing trivial matters.

As to financing, it is hard to really know who is funding which media outlet. None declares its financial details. However, there are at least six TV stations that are fully or partially funded by foreign countries. One channel, known as Al Nabaa, is funded by Qatar, according to a source who does not want to be identified.

Other TV stations are split in funding between the Tripoli-based government of national accord and the Tobruk-based government. Some are funded by local political entities, including city councils and political parties. Since there is no published data on funding, it is hard to figure out how much money is spent annually.

Another issue is the legal permission to operate media outlets. Laws in place since the end of the Qaddafi era are still in nforce, at least in theory, and they do not permit privately owned media outlets unless within strict criteria. So it is difficult to see how so many TVs and radios and other media managed to get permissions. Since no government is in control of the entire country, it is highly likely that the majority of media outlets operate illegally without any accountability.

The media scene in Libya is far from free. Rather it is complicated, dangerous and out of control. All in the name of freedom, of course.

Mustafa Fetouri is a Libyan academic and journalist

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