Libya’s Media Landscape: An Overview
Freedom of Expression
Libya’s media environment has transformed from an exclusively state-controlled apparatus, with the primary objective of disseminating propaganda, to a violent and unregulated sector where partisan media outlets air conflicting views with little space for independent reporting.
During the era of Italian rule in Libya in the early 20th century, the mass media was used almost exclusively as a tool to promote Italy’s colonial propaganda. By the 1930s all Libyan newspapers had been replaced by publications loyal to the Italian government, and in 1937 radio broadcasts were transmitted directly from Rome to major Libyan towns and cities. When the British government administered the country between 1942 and 1951 the media environment remained a colonial tool, with no Arab-owned publications prior to Libyan independence.
It was only after Libya achieved independence in 1951 that the country began to form its own domestic media environment. During the reign of King Idris (1951-1969), several newspapers were established and expressed relatively free opinions along the lines of the country’s four main socio-political orientations – capitalism, communism, Islamism, and pan-Arabism. King Idris’ regime published pro-government newspapers, mainly in Tripoli and Benghazi, and slowly began to curb press freedom. This era also witnessed the creation of Libya’s first national radio station, Radio Libya, set up in 1957 by UNESCO with a U.S. company, and the country’s first terrestrial television channel, which went on air in 1968 financed in part by the U.S.
After Muammar Gaddafi seized power in 1969, he co-opted the media apparatus to propagate the Jamahiriya, the official name of Libya under his rule, which means “state of the masses”. The media was officially run by “People’s Committees”, which oversaw all public organisations and were in turn operated by Gaddafi loyalists. Gaddafi introduced two new radio stations, The Voice of the Koran and The Voice of the Arab Homeland, while the length of live television broadcasting was increased. Newspapers were only allowed to represent specific professional syndicates and cover news relating to them. During this era Gaddafi sought to expand the media’s reach through infrastructure developments such as the Five Year Plan of Broadcasting (1976-1980), so that his speeches and ideology could permeate the entire country.
However, the introduction of new technology meant that Libyans became gradually more exposed to external broadcasts and influences. Satellite television emerged in the mid-1980s, with Libya playing an active role in the 1985 launch of Arabsat, the first satellite from the Middle East and North Africa region. When Al Jazeera began broadcasting in 1996, it received wide viewership from Libyans who had grown disillusioned with the country’s single terrestrial channel, and while the regime launched its rival satellite channel Al Jamahiriya in the same year, pan-Arab channels proved far more popular.
The internet was also introduced in Libya in early 1997, but penetration remains low, at just 18 percent of the population, and limited to the country’s cities. Poor infrastructure, likely linked to the Gaddafi government’s desire to limit external influences, has meant that the country has among the lowest internet penetration and slowest connections in the world.
By the beginning of the 21st century, Libya was under increasing economic and political pressure to liberalize its society, and one of Muammar Gaddafi’s sons, Saif al-Islam, was championed as something of a reformist. In 2007, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi announced the creation of several enterprises under his al-Ghad media company including two newspapers, a radio station and a satellite channel. This new generation of media outlets offered a more liberal editorial line and paid greater attention to local problems and societal issues, gaining popularity among Libyan audiences as a result, and suggested that the domestic Libyan media environment was finally becoming more open. However, Libyan conservative groups soon responded by pressuring Muammar Gaddafi into nationalising al-Ghad, closing down its new satellite channel and temporarily banning one of its newspapers.
After the 2011 revolution and the ouster of the Gaddafi regime, the transitional government opted to abolish the main newspapers of the Gaddafi era and establish new ones, while closing the country’s flagship television channel, Al Jamahiriya TV (later relaunched on Nilesat). Private print publications, websites, television and radio stations began to emerge rapidly in this new era of media openness. However, the country’s subsequent civil war and ongoing conflicts have led to a chaotic media environment.
Freedom of Expression
Although Libya’s ineffective state structure means the domestic media can finally operate free from authoritarian regulations and government intervention, the media environment remains highly dangerous and repressive. The country ranks as number 164 (out of 180 countries) in Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 World Press Freedom index.
Following the 2011 revolution, various interim authorities have been entrusted with drafting a new constitution for the country, but as of November 2016 the document, the interim Constitutional Declaration, is still pending a national consensus, as a permanent version has yet to be ratified by a referendum. This has led to a situation whereby selective laws from the Gaddafi era are still being enforced by the various factions overseeing Libya’s post-revolutionary administration. For example, in February 2014 Libya’s then interim parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), passed a law forbidding criticism of the 2011 revolution or government officials, echoing Gaddafi-era regulations.
Journalists operating in the country now live under threat and intimidation perpetrated by armed militia groups, leading many to practice self-censorship or report from abroad. Because of the factional political environment, media outlets are effectively controlled by the dominant militia groups operating in their region of circulation.
There has been a marked increase in attacks on Libyan journalists, reporters, and media personalities, with more journalists disappearing in Libya than in Syria since 2014. More than 30 attacks against journalists were reported to Reporter Without Borders in 2015.The attacks are often carried out by armed groups, affiliated with local militias or Islamist groups, with the aim to silence media criticism. One of the most prominent incidents occurred in May 2014, when Miftah Bouzeid, editor-in-chief of Burniq, a Benghazi-based independent newspaper and an outspoken critic of various Islamist factions and political parties in Libya, was shot dead in Benghazi as he was delivering newspapers.
2016 has witnessed an increasingly bloody conflict between Islamist extremists in the Islamic State stronghold of Sirte and militia groups attempting to reclaim the city. This has led to the deaths of several journalists covering the conflict, including Libyan television correspondent Abdelqadir Fassouk in July and Dutch photojournalist Jeroen Oerlemans in October. A Libyan freelance journalist, Khaled al-Zintani, was killed in June covering clashes between Islamist militants and the Libyan National Army in Benghazi.
Private television channels have become widespread in Libya since 2011 and are more popular than state-owned equivalents, although foreign satellite channels continue to attract larger audiences due to the historical association between domestic television and propaganda during the Gaddafi era. The most popular domestic television channels are as follows:
Radio remains the second most popular media platform in Libya, behind television. But in contrast to television, Libyan radio stations are far more popular than international broadcasts because of their focus on local content. Due to the limited reach of FM broadcasting, the most popular radio stations in Libya tend to be regional networks. Radio stations have been subject to frequent attacks from armed groups, prompting the majority to eschew political broadcasting and some to completely shut down.
The Libyan Radio and Television Corporation (LRTC) operates three public radio stations from Tripoli:
Libya has notably few daily newspapers and circulation levels are small in comparison with its North African neighbours. The printed press traditionally served as a mouthpiece for Gaddafi propaganda and therefore failed to engage widespread audiences, while in the current climate new private publications are often shut down or subjected to intimidation. Modern print newspapers also regularly suffer from financial difficulties and struggle to attract experienced Libyan journalists, some of whom disagree with the decision to close down all pre-2011 publications.
Prominent print publications include:
Although internet penetration is low in Libya, social media has provided a cheap and logistically easy means for emerging news outlets to publish content. Social media platforms, particularly Facebook, are extensively used by state and non-state actors. Human rights organization Freedom House observes that “Facebook is often the platform of choice for city and even government officials to publish updates and official communication.” Militia groups use Facebook as their primary means of disseminating information, as does the Libyan army. The Islamic State’s Libyan branch has also harnessed social media as a propaganda outlet.
According to a 2013 survey of 3,500 Libyans conducted by Altai Consulting, Facebook is considerably the most popular social media platform in the country with 58 percent of internet users indicating it as their “preferred international website”, followed by YouTube (21%), and Twitter (9%). The same survey also estimates that just over a quarter of Libya’s adult population (26%) is registered on Facebook.
Despite social media providing a new outlet for citizen journalism and freedom of expression in Libya, online activists and bloggers have been subjected to severe abuse in the post-2011 environment.
In 2014 a short-lived Facebook page was established to document the names and addresses of online activists in Benghazi, and to ultimately call for their assassination. In Tripoli, also in 2014, political activist Moez Bannon spoke out against militias on social media and subsequently disappeared. He remains unaccounted for. Furthermore, in February 2015, Intisar al-Hasiri, a human rights advocate who blogged about democracy and the rule of law, was found shot dead in her car.
Online newspapers and websites have proliferated rapidly in Libya since 2011 but are subject to the same restrictions as social media users. Publishing content that is critical of ruling militias in certain areas often leads to reprisals and therefore the most independent online outlets tend to operate from abroad.
When Libya Dawn militias arrived in Tripoli in 2014 to re-establish self-declared GNC rule, they took over the Libyan News Agency (LANA). This prompted the House of Representatives in Eastern Libya to establish a rival news agency using the same name in al-Baida. At present both news agencies disseminate information in favour of a particular faction. A third news agency, Al-Tadamun, was established in Switzerland in 2011 but has since relocated to Benghazi. It is largely perceived as more reliable than the two partisan state news agencies. In 2015, the European Union and Deutsche Welle Akademie launched the Libyan Cloud News Agency, based in Tunis, which uses satellite-link technology and the online cloud platform to allow Libyans to circumvent regional censorship and report in a more open environment.
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Yahya ibn Abi Kathir (769-848)