27 August 2011

Libya: The Fall of Gaddafi Won't Guarantee a Free Press

There has been a huge increase in the number of different media outlets in Libya since the fight against Gaddafi.

The country used to have eleven daily newspapers, but there are now around 120, in addition to new radio stations, TV channels and countless websites. But experts warn that 40 years of censorship is a bad recipe for independent journalism.

Leon Willems, Director of Free Press Unlimited, a Dutch organisation with projects in over forty countries that suffer from repression and conflict, sees three challenges for journalists in the 'new' Libya:

"The existing reporters are often corrupted by working for so long under a dictator. You also often make infrastructural problems - including things like electricity. And you have to deal with new legislation to ensure that more is possible in the future."

Gaddafi's Libya hung for years at the bottom of the journalistic freedom indexes of organisations such as the US Freedom House and the French-based Reporters without Borders. "Libya has by far the worst starting position of those Arab countries where the regime has fallen," says Courtney Radsch from Freedom House. "After such a long time under a dictator, journalists no longer know what it's like to be independent," says Mr Willems.

Reporters without Borders

The fighting hasn't exactly improved the position of journalism. "In contrast to Egypt or Tunisia, a real war has taken place," says Mr Willems. "Relationships between people are on edge." In a recent report by Reporters without Borders more problems were identified: censorship was noticeable, both by the National Transitional Council and by journalists themselves.

"There must be no talk about civil war, the tribal issue, Islamist extremism and supporters of Gaddafi," said the report by Reporters sans Frontières. Also, the state of Qatar played a very prominent role in supporting new TV stations. "In addition, the was a break in regulatory and structural control, and journalists were victims of violence, as in virtually every armed conflict," says Soazig Dollet, Middle East spokesman for the organisation.

Better scores?

Therefore it's not a foregone conlusion that Libya, after the ouster of the dictator, will automatically move up in the press freedom indexes.

Courtney Radsch of Freedom House says:

"You'll have to wait and see what laws there are, how the authorities react to attempts by the media to report on the transitional period. There are many problematic developments. It's too early to say whether the revolution and transition will lead to an immediate improvement in the scores."

Mr Radsch cites as a negative example the restrictions that the military rulers in Egypt instituted immediately for bloggers and other journalists.

New legislation

Press freedom means more than "no attacks on journalists," says Freedom House. "Our index also takes into account economic dependency and political pressure." The most important thing, according to the press freedom organization, is that the new authorities in Libya enshrine the protection of journalists in the new legislation.

Yet there is optimism. "In a violent struggle the media are always manipulated," says Leon Willems. "That can change if the situation normalises." There are already many initiatives in Libya to assist the journalists of tomorrow. Thus colleagues in the diaspora are flocking in to join the new Libyan media. One example is a former RNW employee, Omar Elkeddi. He went to the opposition TV station Libya Al-Ahrar in Qatar with, amongst others, the well-known cartoonist Al-Saatour.

Soazig Dollet of Reporters without Borders looks positively to the future despite the numerous obstacles: "It's a learning curve and a challenge for the new Libyan authorities. But you must also have some confidence in the future. The same goes for Egypt and Tunisia. These are real revolutions. The Libyans themselves have to become conscious of how important it is to have press freedom and freedom of expression."

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