In Libya, media freedom isn't bulletproof

After decades of severe censorship, media outlets are embracing the opportunity to broadcast freely. But they still have no protection if they anger powerful people.

Scott Peterson/TCSM/Getty Images/File
Al Jazeera English cameraman Joao Duarte films a destroyed statue of the Green Book in a central square as antigovernment rebels fighting Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi consolidate military gains at the western end of the Nafusa mountain range near Nalut, Libya, April 27, 2011.

Staff at Al Aseema TV had just finished a late-night broadcast when dozens of gunmen barged in, ordered them out of the building, set fire to the studios, and fired rocket-propelled grenades at the windows.

Station managing director Mahmud Salam was on his way home when he got notice that the building was under attack. He arrived minutes later to shaken employees in the yard and windows belching smoke. There was no explanation, but the gunmen's message was clear: Stop broadcasting.  

For Libyan journalists, freedom to offend is an improvement on Muammar Qaddafi's severe censorship. But attacks like the one on Al Aseema have become a persistent occupational hazard. Armed groups are flourishing, and the weak government can't protect journalists.

At least eight journalists, including Al Aseema owner Jumaa al Usta and news manager Mohamed Hooni, were briefly abducted in 2013, and one of the eight was killed, according the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. 

But media outlets are still reveling in their new freedom, and they can see their impact growing, says Mr. Hooni.

“Al Aseema is the biggest station in terms of viewers, and that’s more powerful than any weapon,” he says. “When you report the news, you move the street.”

High impact

Media coverage of militia gunfights in Tripoli last November, which left several civilians dead, helped trigger protests that prompted several powerful militias to withdraw from the city. With Libya still in chaotic transition, the news often has big implications. On Sunday the country’s interim parliament appointed Libya’s fourth prime minister since elections in 2012. 

Within months of revolt in February 2011, Libyans founded independent media to cover it. Mr. Salam resigned as a diplomat in Kuwait and helped his friend, Mr. Usta, set up the station’s first, temporary studio in Tunis. In August 2011 they entered Libya, following a rebel advance into Tripoli that toppled Qaddafi’s regime.

Under Qaddafi, most media were state organs. The two private newspapers, Qorina and Oea – set up by Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, who was then widely considered a reformer – groused about problems in governance but avoided challenging Qaddafi’s rule. State newspapers were wary of embarrassing officials, says Ali Nusraddine, a trainee reporter from 2009 to 2010 at Al Jamahiriya, the flagship newspaper of Qaddafi’s regime.

He recalls his coverage of a sports event for handicapped children in which he noted poor equipment and bad food. “I didn’t tell you to write things like that,” his editor said angrily when he filed his story. The editor tore up the article and a heavily redacted version was published later.

Growing pains 

The new government isn't necessarily friendlier, though. In January the Libyan congress (GNC) passed a law allowing authorities to censor TV stations that criticize the 2011 revolution, undermine security, or sow discord among Libyans. While the law appears aimed at two pro-Qaddafi TV stations, its vague wording allows for potentially much wider application, according to a Jan. 26 statement by Human Rights Watch.

Mohamed Hammuda, who heads H20, an NGO that monitor’s Libya’s interim parliament, says that while the law is a menace to press freedom in the long term, Libya’s government is most likely too weak at present to enforce it. 

That weakness also means that authorities are powerless to protect media from vengeful armed groups.

Al Aseema in particular has had trouble lately. In February, a bomb exploded outside Usta’s house, gunmen burned Al Aseema’s studios, and several days later directed rockets at them from across the street. Salam says that it’s unclear who staged the attacks, but notes that some Libyans perceive Al Aseema as biased against political Islam. He rejects the accusation, noting that the station has broadcast criticism of the whole of the GNC, where bickering among politicians both Islamist and otherwise has held back reforms. Editor's note: Due to an editing error, this paragraph has been revised to correctly reflect the nature of the GNC.

Journalists also wrestle with the challenges of reporting in a country where events can move quickly and misinformation abounds. Their capacity to master fundamentals – accuracy and objectivity – will be critical.

In February, Army general Khalifa Hifter sent media outlets a video of himself in uniform, demanding that the government and GNC step down. For several hours, the statement – disseminated by many media outlets without thorough examination – fueled fears of a possible coup, but the bravado turned out to be bogus.

For now, the station is soldiering on. On an afternoon shortly after the February attack, a correspondent in Banghazi and a news anchor in Tripoli spoke on air about the latest firefight between the Army and militiamen in Libya's second city.

Sitting in the sole undamaged studio, an editor struggled to hear. On the floor above, repairmen hammered away. 

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