It’s less than a month that the Gaddafi forces were chased out of Tripoli. The red, black and green flag of the revolutionaries is everywhere to be seen in the city, as are the armed boys and men who fought so many battles in the last few months. Many of them are just in jeans, t-shirts and bare feet in slippers. Others wear military outfits of all kinds and colours.
The fighting is over here, though not in other parts of the country like Sirte and Bani Walid. In the evening gunfire is still to be heard in Tripoli. Some of it may be celebratory or some of the kids are just trying out if their Kalashnikov or RPG is still working. In the few 5-star hotels of Tripoli a nervous mixture of National Transitional Council officials, foreign journalists and aid workers, Rambo-looking guys with impressive side arms, ear phones and icy stares, are keeping themselves busy with endless talk over coffee and soft drinks. It’s here that the new Libya is discussed, some personal power battles are fought out and rumors and real information are exchanged.
The Doha Centre for Media Freedom, led by its director Jan Keulen, is meeting local Libyan journalists and NTC representatives to get the picture of the media situation in post-Gaddafi Tripoli. After 42 years of dictatorship it’s time to do away with newspapers, radio and TV which served to glorify the leader and make propaganda for the unique political system he invented. It’s time to abolish censorship and repression and create something entirely new and fresh; to re-invent journalism. The question however is: how?
Members of the DCMF delegation in Libya will work on answering that complicated question when they return to Doha. This fact finding mission is the start of a DCMF sponsored programme that will help the country’s media shake off years of restriction through assistance and training. There are, it seems, already signs of progress.
New newspapers but ‘we need training, lots of training’
The 17 of February daily newspaper is housed in a former Ministry of Information building in a popular neighborhood in Tripoli. “We are independent from the NTC, they don’t tell us what to write and they are not censoring anything”, says Saoud Salem a columnist with 17 of February. Souad main theme is to write about women’s struggles. She believes journalists should not theorise too much or play political games but go out in the street and relate to what is important in people’s life. She is glad to be able to write again after being banned from journalism in 2007 by the former regime.
Idris el Mesmari is a veteran journalist who heads the Munasamat el A'mel Sahafa, a support institution for Libyan journalists installed by the NTC. “We started less than a month ago”, he sights, chain smoking. “There is so much to do. Our task is to encourage the new journalists and to organise training to improve their reporting and writing skills.” Mesmari’s activities in the former Libyan Union of Writers landed him in prison from 1978 till 1988. He is one of the many victims of press freedom violations of the former regime.
Safinass worked for 13 years in a daily newspaper, she is now with 17 of February. Her father was a Libyan general who died in the Chad war in the eighties. “There was only one way of reporting: glorifying Gaddafi and the regime. I hated that and we sometimes tried to publish stories which were a bit more critical. But many subjects were taboo. To write about the widespread corruption was forbidden.” According to Safinass and her colleagues it will take some time to democratise and upgrade Libyan journalism. “We need training, lots of training. In Gaddafi’s time some journalists received scholarships to go abroad, to Egypt or the Gulf. But the military intelligence checked if the journalist was political correct before they granted you a scholarship. There was also a strong element of nepotism: you could get a scholarship if you knew the right people.”
‘It’s hard to wipe out the authoritarian mentality from our minds’
Fatma Ghandour, a writer and university teacher, said wiping out years of being restricted will not be easy. “What is needed for good journalism is freedom. How can you report the truth when you don’t feel free? Obviously we didn’t enjoy freedom and many journalists were imprisoned and some even killed. The problem is we had a dictatorship for 42 years and it’s hard to wipe out the authoritarian mentality from our minds. Gaddafi may be gone from Tripoli but many people, including journalists, carry a small Gaddafi in their hearts.” According to Fatma Libyan journalists have an important task in changing mentalities and building democracy in the country. “What we need in our media is a real discussion, a real confrontation of ideas. We need to connect to the outside world. Of course we’re all very active on the Internet but in reality we know very little about developments abroad. We were shut off for a long time.”
“Besides that most journalists don’t know English, or their English is very poor. Gaddafi’s Minister of Education and cousin Ahmed Ibrahim abolished foreign language education in the eighties, though he sent his own children to expensive schools in England. For journalists to understand and speak foreign languages, especially English, is a must. Reform of the media is closely linked to reform of our educational system. You know: education, health care, culture… Gaddafi’s legacy is really a mess. Everything has to be rebuilt.”
A deep mistrust of the media remains
Wajd is a 26 year old student in journalism and she is dreaming about becoming a Libyan Oprah Winfrey or a war reporter. “As a child I was always listening to the BBC radio, together with my father. I think it’s the duty of a journalist to report the truth and to be honest. It’s now possible to report on human rights, on women rights, to criticise the authorities when necessary. This is democracy, this is freedom.” Wajd is already writing from time to time in 17 February and is very active on Facebook. “Facebook is my world. I sometimes have the feeling I live in Facebook. When the revolution started in February they shut down the Internet in Tripoli. Tripoli was scared of Facebook. He wanted to offer money to Facebook to close down.”
Wajd is willing to “fight for press freedom” if necessary. Though freedom is cherished, many Libyans distrust the media after having experienced the lies and propaganda of 42 years dictatorship. “Libyans were afraid to speak to the media and journalists were scared of the secret police. Media were extremely dull and weren’t really informative. We lived in a world of rumors. It’s completely new in Libya to be able to report on almost everything and discuss the problems people have. This freedom has to be defended and professional standards of the journalists have to live up to the people’s expectations.”
In the radio studio of Libya al Hur FM head of the news desk Hussein Albaser is skeptical. “Yes we have freedom and democracy now. But we don’t have good journalists. Journalism very often is a hobby of good-willing young people. Until now we are hardly paid. This is ok for the time being because we’re living a revolution, but it’s not sustainable. Officials of the NTC and military commanders often don’t respect our work and don’t answer our questions. They don’t understand the work we’re doing. The rights of journalists are not yet guaranteed.” Though critical and with a trace of bitterness there is no doubt where Albaser’s loyalty lies. He lifts his shirt and shows an impressive bullet wound in his belly. “It’s a miracle I’m still alive. I received this bullet in Bani Walid. Unfortunately I wasn’t wearing a flak jacket. Local media don’t have the money to buy bullet proof vests. But it is of course our duty to report the revolution.”