By Mary Fitzgerald

This research paper shows that Libyan media outlets – particularly television channels, by far the most popular and influential medium – have played a significant role in the civil conflict since 2014.

PART ONE

This project aims to produce evidence-based guidance and capacity building outputs based on original, context-sensitive research into the risks and opportunities in media reporting of terrorism and terrorist incidents.

The role of media reporting on terrorism has been under investigated and is an underutilised dimension of a holistic counter-terrorism strategy. How the media reports on terrorism has the potential to impact counter-terrorism (CT) perspective positively or negatively.

Key Findings

Libya’s civil conflict is underpinned by an intense battle of narratives. A majority of domestic outlets are linked in some way to political or armed factions, with many owned or funded by actors in the civil conflict that began in 2014. This has led to the weaponisation of media, with disinformation emerging as a particular problem.

Key to this has been the strategy adopted by pro-Haftar media of branding opponents and critics as “terrorists” or “terrorist sympathisers” which has led to the targeting of a wide range of individuals, including journalists. While anti-Haftar factions have, more recently, attempted to co-opt such rhetoric, it remains a far more potent weapon for Haftar’s camp.

The casual use of the terms “terrorist” or “terrorist sympathiser” has become so widespread in Libyan media that the word “terrorism” has lost meaning in the Libyan context. This has undermined attempts to conduct in-depth reporting on designated terrorist groups present in Libya, including Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda linked groups.

Libyan media outlets often recycle material from terrorist groups’ propaganda, particularly social media, with little fact-checking or verification, thus unwittingly amplifying their messaging.

Professionalising Libya’s media sector will take years and little progress can be made while the civil conflict continues. In the meantime, measures to protect journalists and tackle hate speech and incitement should be encouraged.

Introduction

This case study seeks to examine the impact – positive and negative – of media reporting of terrorism in Libya since 2011. Libya has struggled to develop a professionalised media sector following the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011.

This is partly due to a host of legacy issues related to the way media was controlled and consumed in Libya during the forty-two years Gaddafi was in power. But it is also due to the fact that the evolution of Libya’s media landscape in the post-Gaddafi period has been beholden to the country’s power struggles.

A majority of domestic outlets are linked in some way to a political or armed faction, with a significant number owned or funded by actors in the civil conflict that began with Khalifa Haftar’s then unauthorised military operations in May 2014, and has continued in different iterations since.

This has led to the weaponisation of media, with the dissemination of disinformation becoming a particular problem. Domestic journalism that is independent from the warring factions or an external power is virtually nonexistent. Individual reporters have little autonomy apart from what they post on personal social media accounts.

This research paper shows that Libyan media outlets – particularly television channels, by far the most popular and influential medium – have played a significant role in the civil conflict since 2014.

By taking partisan positions and adopting specific – and highly simplistic – narratives to describe complex security dynamics, they have influenced public perceptions of actors and driven the polarisation of public opinion.

Key to this has been the strategy adopted by pro-Haftar figures and allied media of branding all opponents and critics “terrorists” or “terrorist sympathisers.”

While antiHaftar factions have, more recently, attempted to co-opt such rhetoric and use it against their foes, it remains a far more potent weapon for Haftar’s camp, which has claimed to be fighting terrorism since May 2014.

Not only has this “counter-terrorism” narrative been key to Haftar’s efforts to build a domestic support base, it has also helped him gain foreign backing, particularly from countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt, whose own state media outlets also conflate a range of actors – particularly Islamist – under the “terrorist” label.

The casual use of the terms “terrorist” or “terrorist sympathiser” has become so widespread in Libyan media outlets that the word “terrorism” has lost meaning. Given the blurred lines between more traditional media outlets and social media, this effect is also evident in wider public discourse.

This, in turn, has undermined efforts to conduct in-depth and more revelatory reporting on designated terrorist groups which could contribute to better understanding about how radicalisation occurs within the Libyan context and how it can be countered. It has also increased risks for journalists who attempt more nuanced reporting.

The weaponisation of Libyan media outlets, which have been transformed into propaganda tools for warring groups, has led to the perception that such outlets – and the individual reporters that work for them – are merely another arm of political and military factions.

As a result, journalists are seen as integral to the conflict, whether through bolstering or challenging a narrative, the latter often leading to their targeting by belligerents.

This targeting takes several forms: some foreign journalists have been smeared through orchestrated social media campaigns or denounced on partisan television channels as “terrorist sympathisers” or spies while Libyan journalists accused of the same have been detained by armed groups.

The most serious case concerned Ismail Abuzreiba al-Zway, a photojournalist seized by Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) in 2018.

Two years later he was sentenced to fifteen years “on vague terrorism charges” by a military court. The trial was widely criticised by the United Nations (UN) mission to Libya and both Libyan and international journalist advocacy organisations.

This report is based primarily on media monitoring in Libya, plus in-depth interviews with media owners, practitioners and trainers – both Libyan and non-Libyan – who have worked in the country since 2011.

Fieldwork was conducted in western Libya in November 2019 and further interviews were conducted in Tunisia and Turkey or remotely.

The author reviewed a range of public materials, including relevant Libyan legislation, reports by non-governmental organisations and postings on Facebook and other internet and social media sites.

The author also drew on her own on the ground observations of how the media landscape in Libya has evolved since 2011.

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Mary Fitzgerald is a researcher specialising in the Euro-Mediterranean region with a particular focus on Libya. She has worked on Libya since February 2011 and lived there in 2014. She has conducted research on Libya for the International Crisis Group (ICG) and the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) among others. She has written extensively on Libya’s Islamist milieu. Her work has appeared in the Economist, Foreign Policy, the New Yorker and the Guardian. She has consulted for a number of international organisations working in Libya including in the development and conflict mediation spheres.

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International Centre for Counter- Terrorism