Libya has a long history of curtailed freedom of speech and only after the Arab spring in 2011 the situation improved for the country’s media, bringing a lot of optimism which was reflected in the media and in what was being discussed. But this didn't last for long, only until the elections of 2012. Late in 2012 challenges began to emerge and journalists and media organisations were targeted for their criticism of the government and the different rival political and ideological groups. Media and public figures were threatened and even attacked and kidnapped if not killed. As of today media still face similar dangers despite the political and economic changes in the country.
Libya has an unstable environment for free press. This was clearly indicated already by the 2008 IREX report on Sustainable Press in Libya. Many issues still stand today.
Press was first introduced in Libya through foreign consulates in 1827, as the French consulate issued a monthly newspaper in French language, aimed at French speakers and foreigners. Called Al-Munaqqib Al-Afriqi (The African Investigator), this was the first form of newspaper in North Africa. Decades later in 1865 the Ottoman governor in Tripoli ordered to issue a monthly newspaper Tarablus Al-Gharb (Tripoli of the West) which consisted of only two pages, one printed in Arabic and the other in Turkish, covering political and social news of the Ottoman rulers’ affairs. In 1897 the first private newspaper was printed in Arabic and called Al-Taraggi (Progress), along with a number of privately owned newspapers. These newspapers were targeted to elites and had a very narrow niche audience due to the expensive costs and the high illiteracy rate among the general public in Libya during the Ottoman rule.
In 1911 when Italy colonised Libya, the colonists took over the press and began to issue newspapers in Italian and Arabic. Libyan-owned or -run newspapers and the press had many limitations until independence in 1951 and this heavily affected the development of the media market. After the independence, despite the population’s impoverished living conditions, the media market had a short-lived boost with the introduction of many political groups and parties who have launched their own newspapers propagating their political and ideological views. More than 15 weekly newspapers, 13 monthly magazines and 11 newspapers were published in English and Italian, of which over 65 percent were independent and privately owned.
This was until the King banned political parties and ordered for the restriction of the private press, while the state-owned press under British management continued to spread in the two Libyan capitals Benghazi and Tripoli.
The TV and radio stations were predominately in English and Italian, as the majority were transmitted from British, American or Italian military bases. There was coverage in limited areas, and it was expensive to own a TV or a radio set. A new era was ushered with the 1969 military coup led by Gaddafi, as media were used to spread his ideologies. When the Gaddafi regime began to pay greater attention to mass media, an increasing number of Arabic TV and radio programmes were broadcasted.
Media were mainly focused on enforcing the regime’s ideologies. Gaddafi nationalised all press and theatres, seized possessions of all private properties and equipment. No privately owned press was allowed in the country, as Gaddafi stated in his Green Book: "The press is a means of expression for society: it is not a means of expression for private individuals or corporate bodies. Therefore, logically and democratically, it should not belong to either one of them."
Gaddafi’s security apparatus rounded up many of the journalists and public figures, while many of them fled the country and lived in exile for over three decades, till the end of Libya's international isolation in 2004, when Colonel Gaddafi's son Saif Al-Islam emerged as a younger and more liberal leader. New satellite channels and newspapers were launched and, Internet access was increased.
The Internet introduced new variables, as it connected the people inside the country with all the exiled journalists, public figures and oppositions who had left the country after being targeted by the regime for their views and their demands of reforms. Saif Al-Islam reached out to many of these figures in an attempt to reconcile and bring them back to Libya. He made the promise of more liberties and a rule of law in the form of a constitution, which Libya lacked since the military coup in 1969. Saif Al-Islam launched a political program called Libya Al-Ghad (Libya of tomorrow), under which a number of TV and radio stations, as well as newspapers, were launched.
The Oea (Tripoli in Greek) and Quryna (Benghazi in Greek) newspapers were the flagship print media launched in 2007, along with more than 18 radio stations and satellite channels, including Al Libiya TV and Al Shbabiya TV (The Youth TV) which were independent from the government, but still under the Libya Al-Ghad program.
Under the Gaddafi rule there were four topics that were considered taboo, as described by Reporters Without Borders in 2011: Islamism and sharia laws (discussing the application of sharia law or involving religion in politics was not allowed and considered a threat to stability); political corruption (the issue was simply not up for debate, as it was viewed as a threat to the regime and a tool for discrediting Gaddafi and his government, but from time to time lower ranking officials were criticised); Libya’s territorial unity and ethnic integrity (discussion on the different ethnic backgrounds of Libyans was not allowed, especially for minorities such as Tabu and Berber who even saw their rights denied. The regime viewed Libya as an all-Arab nation and it feared any relevant discussion would cause instability and disunity in the social fabric); the so called “brother leader of the Libyan Jamahiriya” Gaddafi and his associates (criticism of Gaddafi or his associates was not allowed). Those who touched on these issues faced severe punishments from jail to assassination such as in the cases of Razak Al-Mansouri, who was jailed for 18 months in 2005 after his criticism of Gaddafi's regimes policies, followed by the kidnapping, torture and killing of Libyan journalist Daif Al-Ghazal the same year. Many journalists simply vanished and others were imprisoned.
Other areas were opened for criticism and foreign press and publications were allowed back in the country after 25 years of ban. But this controlled freedom did not last for long before it relapsed. The government clamped down in 2009, nationalised and took over TV stations such as Al-Libiya re-launching it under the different name of Al-Wasat. Oea and Quryena were shut down in 2010 and this marked the end of the opening up.
Some critics viewed this as an attempt by the government of the time to reintroduce itself as a more liberal authority after the end of the international isolation. But the majority agree that the end result of the media liberalisation project was a new version of the old state media, including more repressive and oppressive measures as in 2010 a journalism police was founded under the name Niyabat As-Sihafa, its role to chase and arrest journalists and activists who spoke out against government corruption and the regime. Even online media platforms such as Libya Al-Youm and Al-Manara, Jeel Libya, Libya Wattana, Libya Al-Mustakbal were blocked, and social media sites were censored, and this continued until the uprising.
The development of journalistic professionalism had suffered greatly under the dictator’s regime, as the regime seized all TV, radio and press institutions leading to a monopoly over the media in the country for over two decades. Only later when Saif Al-Islam rose to power a new appearance of state media was introduced. But everything was done to keep power within the Gaddafi family.
Libya’s media had been isolated from the rest of the world, especially after the 1992 UN sanctions were imposed on Libya after the regime was accused of planning the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. The country was deprived of technologically advanced equipment and skills development and even the press and publishing houses halted their publishing due to shortage of paper and spare parts for the press machines.
The sanctions were lifted in 2003, but Libyan media were lagging behind, prompting an attempt from Saif Al-Islam to introduce a more modern and opened press. But the Gaddafi regime eventually felt threatened by this more open media scene and clamped down again after a couple of years. The closed environment continued till the uprising in 2011 that ousted the regime.
During the Arab Spring when protests were taking over the region, Libyans began to become restless and social media were flooded with calls for protests on the 17th of February which was called the Day of Rage. As a result many were arrested in the Eastern city of Benghazi. Many activists were able to report on the protests and send news from the Eastern part of the country by uploading videos online, videos which were filmed by citizens on their mobile phones. The regime cut down all communications on the 18th of February 2011, mobile phone networks and Internet were inaccessible, except for the loyalist, while the state-owned TV media were broadcasting rallies of the regime supporters.
Despite the regime’s tight security measures and censorship, with the support from the Libyan Diaspora and Anonymous group (Operation Libya) many managed to get access to upload news and videos from the country, which were spread all over the international news.
During the uprising of 2011 an unprecedented number of news and media organisations have sprung across the country, as more than 170 media outlets have been created receiving generous donations and support from the local and international community.
Most of these organisations had to shut down after only one or two years, due to lack of funding and the security threats they have received by armed and radical groups.
The deteriorating security and political scene in Libya has negatively affected the media environment, as the country became unstable and plagued with violence, reflecting on the safety of journalists and causing media to become more polarised and entrenched in radicalised factions. Media started to divide into regional, ideological and even ethnically based alliances and rivalries.
Coverage of events in the country is now driven by the polarised narrative and view of the different camps. Each side blames their opponents for causing the instability of the economic instability and general insecurity of the nation. Media reports use very polarised lenses, and these views reflect the increasingly polarised and radicalised political divisions in the country.
This is also reflected on social media as the various camps use similar tactics of spreading their narratives. In recent violent events in the capital Tripoli, social media were overflowing with fake news, hate speech and misleading information. The New York Times captured it vividly in an article titled A Facebook War: Libyans Battle on the Streets and on Screens.
Today, the majority of the more than 5000 people who were employed as media staff by the state under Gaddafi continue to work for state media, with slight changes to the leadership of those media, while a number have left to join private media outlets that offered better pay and much more appealing incentives. Salaries in state media are very low, usually in the range of 1000-2000 Libyan Dinars and sometimes staff have to wait many months to receive their pay. On the other hand the privately owned channels and online platforms pay much higher, competitive salaries, ranging between US$2000 and US$10,000.
All these state media staff were faced with a new reality where there was competition. Quality was demanded and those who were not formally educated in media or citizen journalists who just received short practical training and nevertheless joined media outlets felt threatened by the newcomers.
Today the quality of media remains low, and content tends to be highly partisan.