x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Libya tunes in to first TV station without Qaddafi's shadow

Station that represents the first opposition media in 42 years is currently funded by Qatar and broadcasts to Libya from Doha, though it may move to Tripoli.

Omar Elkeddi (centre), chief news editor at Libya TV, works with his colleagues in the gallery. Credit: Raymond Bobar
Omar Elkeddi (centre), chief news editor at Libya TV, works with his colleagues in the gallery. Credit: Raymond Bobar

DOHA // In 1999, after publishing articles in state-funded Libyan magazines critical of the Qaddafi regime, Omar Elkeddi made the decision to apply for asylum in the Netherlands.

Leaving his friends and family behind at the age of 40, he feared for his life and thought it unlikely he would ever return to Libya.

"Imagine how difficult it was to start from nothing at that age," he said. "My life was under threat. Either I left or I would have had to cooperate with them. It was the most difficult decision of my life."

But 12 years later, as Libya looks to a future without Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, it looks increasingly likely that Mr Elkeddi will go back to help to develop his country's media.

Mr Elkeddi left his adopted homeland, and his job as a news editor at Radio Netherlands, in July.

He is now chief news editor at Libya TV, the first and largest non-state television network.

It was launched in March out of Doha by the National Transitional Council, after the NTC media minister Mahmum Shammam recruited a small group of volunteers via Facebook. The station began broadcasting six days after its staff arrived in Doha.

The Qatari government has been hosting the television team, paying the employees' salaries and also paying for their accommodation at a five-star hotel.

It has also given the producers, journalists, researchers and presenters priority access to a local station's studios, close to the city's souq.

The original plan for the Libyan station was to move to Tripoli when security had improved.

They were going to start working from the now empty studios of state television, which have not been used since August 22, when Colonel Qaddafi's channels stopped broadcasting.

"We have a meeting next month to decide whether Libya TV will stay in Doha here or move to Libya," said Huda El Serari, the general manager.

If the station remains in Doha, it is likely to become part of Qatar's media empire. If it moves, it will either be financed by the NTC or run by private investors.

"If we plan to be an international television station, then we will stay here," the general manager said. "This is a very sensitive decision. We have to think before taking it."

"The decision to move or stay is up to the emir of Qatar," said Seraj Beshti, head of the station's administration. "If we stay here it means our headquarters will be here and we will have two main offices, in Tripoli and Benghazi."

Regardless of the move, the number of staff has fallen since its peak at about 60 to 48 in Doha, as some returned to Libya to join the final stages of the effort to topple Col Qaddafi.

The station broadcasts news and talk shows seven days a week for 12 hours a day.

Despite admitting to being a propaganda tool in the effort to dislodge the country's long-time leader, show hosts have welcomed pro-Qaddafi loyalists to call in and air their views.

During the protests, one of its presenters participated in a live debate with the host of a state television show in Libya about issues affecting the country.

Programming is to be overhauled in the next few weeks, with subjects moving away from the protests and towards rebuilding the country.

There is also talk of introducing an English-language programme.

Elizabeth Pickworth, a 24-year-old Australian, the only native western journalist, who works on the station's website, said: "An English programme is definitely important. It would be good for business, trade and education. There are so many languages that Qaddafi banned under his regime.

"He also banned the Berber language, so we have been broadcasting programmes in that, too."

Ms Pickworth started working with Libya TV because she "wanted to be part of the revolution", having been glued to coverage on Al Jazeera. "If the station moves to Tripoli, I will go with them."

The staff is a mixture of Libyans who had been working at state television, Libyan expatriates and other, mainly Arab, journalists passionate about helping the country use media to overthrow the regime.

Lamis Maddur, a 32-year-old Libyan producer who had been living in the US, said: "We were absolutely participating in a media war. We are the voice of truth. We're the first opposition media in 42 years.

"I was at working in Virginia in TV production and I went on my Facebook page. I had some vacation so I thought I would visit and see. I had the interview and I never got on that plane back to America."

Although she has never lived in Libya since she was born there, she would be happy to travel with the station which, she hopes, might find ways to solve some of the country's inevitable problems.

"There is a lot of help that this country needs," Ms Maddur said. "There is a lot of hurt, trauma and a feeling of emptiness. These stories will come out in the new Libya."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae