Journalists in Libya

Caught in the crossfire

As their country slides into a fully fledged civil war, an increasing number of Libyans are seeking shelter abroad. Among them are many journalists who are perceived as being representatives of opposing political forces and are increasingly coming under fire. By Valerie Stocker in Tunis

"They blindfolded and hit me, accusing me of many things: that I am against the revolution, a secular, a liberal, an atheist …They said they would rape and slaughter me," says Salah Ingab, recounting his abduction in Tripoli.

Ingab, a political opinion-writer and publisher of a magazine, was recently held for several hours by men he thinks were acting on behalf of those currently in control of the Libyan capital. "They want to send a message to the activists – leave the city – and to society – calm down, don't move. And this is the exact message they told me to tell the other activists when they decided to release me."

His is not an exceptional case. The organisation Reporters Without Borders has registered seven assassinations, 37 abductions and 127 attacks against journalists in Libya since 2011. Three years after the fall of Muammar al-Gaddafi, the North African nation finds itself in a dead-end situation.

The former dictator left a power vacuum from which two main political camps emerged: one was Islamist-leaning and the other more secular. Their leaders managed to form broad alliances among the tribes, towns and militias, turning all of Libya into a battlefield. As the transition stagnates, the hatemongers among Libya's still inexperienced politicians are shaping public discourse, accusing each other of being either hardline Islamists or Azlam, remnants of the Gaddafi regime.

Early hopes dashed

People are already recalling the hopeful atmosphere that reigned back in late 2011 with nostalgia. After four decades of autocracy, Libyans enthusiastically welcomed the freedom of expression and press freedom they had called for in the revolution. "Previously there were no private channels, only Gaddafi-TV," recalls Abdelhamid al-Amruni, a journalist from Benghazi. Like him, many Libyan journalists learned their profession "on the frontlines".

Newspapers, online magazines, radio and TV channels sprang up like mushrooms, providing a forum for heated debates on the future of the country.

Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index 2014 (source: Reporters Without Borders)
Bleak outlook for journalists in Libya: according to Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index 2014, Libya ranks 137th out of 180 states. "The polarisation in the Libyan media has intensified since May and entails increasing violence", said Barbara Neault, Libya researcher at the organisation, in Tunis in early November. "Dozens of journalists have left Libya since and many seek our assistance"

But the lack of distinction between social networks and media makes it difficult to assess the veracity of reports and to tell objective news from opinion articles. One particularly problematic aspect is the amalgamation of news and propaganda that results from a situation in which politicians and warlords set up their own broadcasting companies and try to discredit those of their rivals in every way possible. Armed gangs now regularly raid TV studios and abduct editors in reaction to controversial reports.

Events have accelerated since the start of the year. In May, ex-General Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive (known as "Operation Dignity") in Benghazi against a militia coalition spearheaded by the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia.

In August, an alliance of Islamist revolutionary forces dominated by the port city of Misrata and known as Fajr Libya ("Libya Dawn") took control of the capital and formed its own government. Meanwhile, the new parliament that was elected this summer and is recognised by the international community has withdrawn to the town of Tobruk, 1,000 kilometres east of Tripoli, waiting for Haftar to win the battle.

Fault lines in the media landscape

Mirroring the political lines of division in the country, each news source is perceived as either Islamist revolutionary or secular reactionary. Khairi Ibrahim in Tripoli is all too familiar with this problem. He is a reporter for the private TV channel al-Nabaa, which was founded by a well-known former member of the Islamist opposition to Gaddafi and is now seen as the mouthpiece of "Libya Dawn". "My colleagues and I try to deconstruct prejudices through balanced reporting, but there is a lot of wrong information about our channel, which makes our field work dangerous," he says. "Previously, the channel was present in all of Libya, now it is pretty much limited to the western region. The current crisis made many journalists quit their job."

"The situation differs in western and eastern Libya," explains Abdelhamid al-Amruni. "In the western region, there are many more but minor attacks, while in Benghazi and Derna, there is a greater risk of a deadly ending." Journalists are not only increasingly being caught in the line of fire of rival groups, they are also receiving threats. Amruni, who was no exception in this respect, did not want to take any chances. "On Facebook someone called 'Zorro Benghazi' sent me photos of myself, and a warning: 'don't make any more comments about Ansar al-Sharia!' Then my car was smashed. I knew I had to leave."

A meeting of Libyan media representatives and diplomats from EU states and the UN Mission in February 2014 (photo: Valerie Stocker)
Journalists under fire: in recent months, activists and observers have been warning of growing restrictions on press freedom in Libyan media at a number of events such as the meeting of Libyan media representatives and diplomats from EU states and the UN Mission in February 2014 (pictured here). At the podium is Michael Aron, British ambassador to Libya. Since then, declining security has led to the departure of most diplomats

Salah Ingab also speaks of the difference between eastern and western Libya: "Those who kidnapped me were not radicals. If Ansar al-Sharia caught me I would never get out. It's political, not religious. Because I am against the Muslim Brotherhood and a well-known activist."

Nevertheless, Ingab believes his release was a matter of luck. He left his wife and child with his parents and moved into a student residence, but eventually he decided that it would be safer to go to Tunisia. "If my life depends on a coalition between two cities, what happens if this coalition collapses?"

"You will cost only one bullet"

His kidnappers had warned him that his name would be registered at all border crossings: "If you try to leave, you will cost only one bullet." But once again, he was lucky. "The border official that morning was a distant relative. He said 'OK, God bless you' and stamped my passport."

Even before the current crisis, there were signs of growing restrictions in freedom of expression in Libya. In February, Amnesty International warned that Gaddafi-era laws were being consolidated for this very purpose, such as Article 195 of the Penal Code, which makes insulting the legislative, executive or judicial authorities and the symbols of the state a crime, as well as "any activities hostile to the 17 February Revolution".

Those parts of Libya that are firmly under the control of either political camp risk seeing a progressive synchronisation of the local media. The most recent sign of this came in the form of a letter from the Foreign Ministry in Tripoli (currently controlled by "Libya Dawn") to a correspondent of the French news channel France24.

In a thinly veiled threat, the letter accuses her of biased reporting and warns of the "reactions of many outraged citizens". Among other things, officials took offence at the fact that she did not call the ruling body in Tripoli the "National Salvation Government".

"Libya's newly acquired press freedom risks failing miserably if the self-appointed authorities in Tripoli prevent local and foreign journalists from doing their job," says Hanan Saleh, Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Valerie Stocker

© 2014

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