Libya's shaky post-revolution media

The field of journalism witnessed a huge expansion in Libya since the February 17, 2011 uprising. Under Qaddafi's rule, the media was tightly controlled. Freedom of expression was censored entirely Today there are 200 printed newspapers in Tripoli and Benghazi alone, and more than 18 satellite TV channels throughout the country, and the number is only increasing. However, the industry still has a long way to go before it can become a reliable source for many Libyans.

It was thus a promising sign when Libya's post-revolution interim government moved to guarantee in Article 14 of the Constitutional Declaration (Libya's transitional roadmap) the "freedom of opinion for individuals and groups, freedom of scientific research, freedom of communication, liberty of press, printing, publication and mass media." 

Nevertheless, as Libya moves to bring the security situation in the country under control, media organizations are vulnerable to armed militias that disagree with their editorial practices. Such concerns were validated when gunmen attacked the Alassema TV station in Tripoli on March 8. The station's offices were ransacked and a number of employees, including journalists, were held hostage for nearly24 hours. The attackers were angered by the TV station's coverage of the new Political Isolation Law, which would effectively ban Qaddafi-era officials from holding public office.

Despite the huge expansion in the media sector, the government owns only one satellite channel, one radio station, and two newspapers. For some, this is a good sign, because the government doesn't control the media anymore. Others are arguing that the Libyan media lacks substance, quality, professionalism, and more importantly, regulations. And while there are now many new faces in Libyan journalism, they lack skills and expertise in the field. There is thus an urgent need for professional development and training programs for both individuals and organisations if Libya is to have a culture of responsible journalism.

Libyans are also overwhelmed by the lightening expansion in traditional media outlets (TV, radio, and print media). However, social media (or new media) seems to have attracted the lion's share of users in Libya. With a population of only six million, Libya was the fastest growing country using Facebook in 2011, and the number of users continues to grow. Unfortunately, Facebook has also become a rumor-mill: Government officials have had to hold press conferences or go on radio to negate some of the serious tales that have spread.

According to Mohanned Oun, a student at Tripoli University, Facebook is the number one source for domestic news for him and his friends. But due to its now-tarnished reputation for delivering reliable information, he now usually turns to either TV or radio to confirm stories. Like many Libyans, Mohanned, is overwhelmed by the plethora of new TV channels available in post-revolution Libya.

Mohamed Altaip, who works for the privately owned Lebda FM radio station, explained that the state-owned media is the least capable of coping with the changes happening in Libya. This is because the old management is still in place -- and unable to shake off the Qaddafi-era mentality of running a pro-government editorial policy.

When thousands of people marched in the streets of Benghazi on September 21, 2012 to denounce the attack on the U.S. consulate which killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, state TV aired reruns of the cartoon Tom and Jerry.

On the other hand, privately owned channels and radio stations have improved rapidly in terms of quality and substance of their programs, and are coping relatively well with Libya's transition. However, many privately owned stations are also becoming mouthpieces for certain political parties and groups, and many Libyans are complaining about the lack of neutrality. 

While it's beneficial to have new media, TV stations with ideological agendas are dangerous for Libya's democratic transition, because they undermine the viewers and their intelligence by trying to convince them of certain opinions or views without substantive arguments.

The other fundamental issue is the absence of a coherent national charter to act as a framework for media standards. Reda Fhelboom, who works for Libya's International TV channel, argues that the responsibility is for Libya's media elites to produce a national charter for journalism that would regulate how the sector operates (Fhelboom is part of a group working on such a project). The issue is particularly important because currently, satellite channels and newspapers are not serving the interests of the public. If the media is not regulated to operate in an unbiased manner, it could seriously complicate Libya's democratic transition.

The media sector in Libya needs to go beyond the revolutionary coverage period; it needs to co-ordinate efforts in order to be prepared to meet the huge challenges ahead, covering the elections, national reconciliation, and social and political development.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Transitions Libya blogger. Read the rest of his posts here.



Don't overlook Bahrain, it's a matter of life and death

Zainab al-Khawaja, on hunger strike since March 17, escalated her protest last weekend and now refuses liquids as well, risking her internal organs shutting down, according to an urgent appeal by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

Zainab is reportedly having severe hypoglymia with HGT measurements reaching 2. Her family reported that she sounded fatigued, said she was suffering loss of memory and concentration. Having initiated a dry hunger strike now, including no intake of glucose, will put her at high risk of sudden onset arrhythmias, loss of consciousness and possibly death especially that she is in a detention center were no cardiac monitor or cardiac resuscitation service is available.

Zainab (pictured above) is on strike because, not only has the Khalifa regime arrested her arbitrarily, they have also taken away her visiting rights, preventing her from seeing her three-year old daughter Jude.

Not far away, her incarcerated father Abdulhadi is also on strike, in solidarity with his daughter. His health is deteriorating; but his wardens won't allow him medical care until he wears the grey prison uniform reserved for convicted criminals. But Abdulhadi, a prisoner of conscience, was not even convicted criminally. The uniform demand is simply another attempt at humiliating the prisoner -- yet another failed attempt.

Serving a life sentence since 2011 on the charge of "plotting to overthrow the government," Abdulhadi went on hunger strike once before, for an incredible 110 days. More than two months into the strike, alarmed by the actual possibility of his death, the government had him drugged and forcibly fed by a nasoenteric tube. Ultimately, he ended his strike voluntarily.

Abdulhadi and Zainab al-Khawaja are but two among many human rights activists in Bahraini prisons -- representing the plight of a nation.

On Wednesday, it was reported that Abdulhadi began drinking water at the behest of his brother, also incarcerated with him, after his health had deteriorated. Zainab, too, reportedly drank some water after she had begun coughing blood.

Maryam al-Khawaja, the youngest in the al-Khawaja family living in quasi-exile in Denmark, is the acting director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and a tireless advocate for Bahrain's cause abroad. "Not a week passes without protests in various villages across Bahrain," she told me at a conference in Tunis last week. Moving the audience with rhetorical gifts, Maryam's words were a reminder that, as personable as the plight of the Khawaja family is, it is truly the plight of a nation. Beyond the simplistic accusation of the movement as a Shiite rebellion against the Sunni authority, Maryam reminded us that some of the most renowned freedom fighters in the Bahraini revolution are Sunni, while the propagandist Minister of State for Information is a Shiite. Rather, the Bahraini revolution is one taking place in villages the country over, but it is drastically underreported.

It is no secret why Bahrain's revolution seldom makes it onto our radar screens: With the Bahraini King being a staunch ally for Gulf and Western regimes, most media outlets, Arab and Western, usually refrain from reporting anything negative coming out of the island. A notable exception in the U.S. media is Nick Kristof -- primarily because he holds a grudge against the Bahraini regime for tear-gassing and detaining him in 2011, and then banning him entry to the country altogether last December. (I'm grateful to the Bahraini regime for turning Kristof into such an advocate).

Zainab al-Khawaja wrote a letter from prison which was widely published. She quotes Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Henry David Thoreau. It is an intimately personal and brutally honest missive to the world, but also to herself and to her daughter, on why their fight against tyranny is important -- and why

Maryam al-Khawaja emphasized that publicizing the situation in Bahrain does help, citing the example of medical professionals and hospital staff who were incarcerated for committing the "heinous" crime of treating patients who happened to be regime opponents; they were released when their case garnered global attention.

I urge you to read the appeal from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, as well as Zainab al-Khawaja's letter from jail. For updates on this case, follow both Maryam al-Khawaja as well as her mother, Khadija Almousawi, who are very active on Twitter.

Read them. And share them widely. As our governments observe complacently, there are people dying by the minute.

Perhaps it's time we citizens did something ourselves.

Mohamed El Dahshan is the Egypt blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.