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.
Libya’s media landscape pre-2011
Some of the key challenges in Libya’s current media sector can be traced to the legacy of Gaddafi’s forty-two-year rule. Gaddafi devoted a chapter in his Green Book – which provided the ideological underpinning for his regime – to the media.
In it, he dismissed the concept of press freedom as linked to the “problem of democracy,” and outlined a framework that would define Libya’s media landscape for more than thirty years.
During the Gaddafi period, the Libyan authorities owned most of the country’s print and broadcast media and ensured they were tightly controlled.
Until 2007, all informational output from television, radio and print media was supplied by the Jamahiriyah News Agency (JANA), which in turn was closely administered by the Gaddafi regime.
As part of tentative reforms in 2007, Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Gaddafi was permitted to establish the Ghad Media Corporation. It launched a television and radio station named Libiya, and two semi-private newspapers, Oya in Tripoli and Qureyna in Benghazi.
Gaddafi faced opposition – from attempted coups to popular resistance ranging from Islamist to non-Islamist – at several points during his four decades in power. Dissidents were often branded ‘irhabiyeen’ – or terrorists.
The most serious challenge to the regime came in the 1990s, with the return of Libyan veterans of the war in Afghanistan. They formed a number of armed groups, particularly in eastern Libya, of which the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) was the largest.
After the LIFG made several assassination attempts of Gaddafi, the regime responded with a fierce crackdown. The regime used state media to portray these groups as extremists and terrorists.
When anti-regime protests tipped into an armed uprising against Gaddafi’s rule in early 2011, the Libyan leader deployed the same stratagem, insisting those opposing him were al-Qaeda, and foreign journalists reporting on the revolt were “al-Qaeda collaborators.”
State media repeated these tropes, so much so that regime forces captured by the rebels later said they believed they were fighting al-Qaeda and not countering a popular uprising.
Libya’s media landscape in postGaddafi rule
After the Gaddafi regime fell in 2011, Libya’s media landscape changed dramatically. In the initial postGaddafi period, new satellite television stations, radio stations and online and print media proliferated in an atmosphere of newly realised freedom.
Many of these new outlets were founded and staffed by Libyans who had been active in the uprising or who had worked as ‘citizen journalists’ and fixers for foreign journalists during the period.
Dozens of privately owned Libyan TV channels began to broadcast from either inside the country or outside, particularly from the Gulf and later from Jordan and Turkey. Some of these outlets have received funding from foreign governments.
In recent years, this has tended to reflect the fault-lines of the civil conflict but transparency in ownership and financing within Libya’s media sector in general remains limited. The hope that Libya could develop a professionalised, independent media sector was short-lived.
A lack of professionalism – whether among older journalists accustomed to Gaddafi era practices or younger journalists who considered themselves activists – exacerbated the situation, as did the growing use of social media by Libyans of all ages.
Facebook, in particular, became a hugely popular way to reach large audiences as internet usage grew and more Libyans had access to social media. By 2020, Facebook had become the primary means of communication for two-thirds of Libyans.
Politicians, militia leaders, religious figures and civil society activists used Facebook to issue statements, debate critics, or spread rumours and disinformation. Prominent figures and armed groups often had to contend with fake accounts springing up in their name in a bid to sow confusion.
Print and broadcast media ran their own associated Facebook pages but were regularly guilty of posting poorly sourced content. Although media outlets were frequently accused of bias, their associated Facebook pages had significantly higher numbers of followers and higher levels of engagement in the form of “likes” compared to government Facebook pages or those belonging to armed groups and other entities.
The symbiotic use of Facebook by media outlets contributed to the lack of professionalism in the Libyan media sector. An echo chamber developed as journalists repeated in print and broadcast media – or their own social media accounts – what they had read on social media, often without fact-checking or verifying.
During the first years after the 2011 uprising, Libya struggled to establish viable political and security institutions in the face of threats from armed groups that had flourished in the post-Gaddafi vacuum.
The deteriorating political and security situation had a profound impact on Libya’s media sector, with the country’s power struggles – both national and more localised – reflected in an increasingly polarised and politicised media landscape. Media outlets began dividing along factional lines, with television in particular becoming a platform for particular political currents, tribes and towns.
Media polarisation became particularly acute as Libya tipped into civil conflict in 2014. A growing number of Libyan journalists and television presenters began taking sides in 2014 and, in some cases, later engaged in incitement.
Threats, abductions, and attacks against media outlets and journalists increased, and many media practitioners went into exile. A key element of the power struggle that has underpinned the civil conflict since is the fierce battle of narratives.
Whilst this is true of conflicts more generally, in the Libyan case, it is more pronounced for historical and more contemporary reasons. During the Gaddafi era, his regime not only strictly controlled domestic media, it also restricted access to, and movement within, Libya, resulting in limited media reporting and academic research on the country.
Most diplomatic missions and international organisations have not had a presence on the ground since 2014 when they evacuated during fighting in Tripoli. Foreign journalists have struggled to obtain visas and permits, particularly for Haftar’s stronghold in eastern Libya, which is also difficult to access for Libyan journalists from western Libya.
In such a context, all sides in the conflict recognise the importance of controlling the story reported by the media whether for domestic consumption or to influence international policymaking. Given the extent of foreign interference in the Libyan conflict, the latter is deemed particularly important.
Ongoing civil conflict has prevented the development and enforcement of an effective legal and regulatory framework for the Libyan media sector. With rival governments and armed forces contesting legitimacy, the country has not been able to progress in its postGaddafi transition and many laws from the previous regime remain in place.
A draft constitution published in July 2017, yet to be approved in a public referendum, was criticised for not meeting international standards on freedom of expression and media protection. In the interim, a constitutional declaration hastily drawn up during the 2011 uprising serves as Libya’s legislative framework. It provides limited protection for the media.
Libya was plunged into a fresh stage of conflict in April 2019 when Khalifa Haftar – a commander based in eastern Libya – launched an offensive to capture Tripoli from the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), sparking a war that drew in a host of foreign backers, including the UAE, Russia and Turkey, and deepened media polarisation, increasing the risks for journalists.
In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) noted that Libya’s media and journalists were “now embroiled in an unprecedented crisis, with several media outlets being press-ganged into serving the various warring factions. As well as turning the media into propaganda outlets, the conflict’s political and military actors have become news censors.”
In its 2020 report on Libya, Freedom House noted: Most Libyan media outlets are highly partisan, producing content that favours one of the country’s political and military factions. The civil conflict and related violence by criminal and extremist groups have made objective reporting dangerous, and journalists are subject to intimidation and detention.
In January 2019, a photographer was killed while covering clashes between militias south of Tripoli. Many journalists and media outlets have censored themselves or ceased operations to avoid retribution for their work, and journalists continue to flee the country.
Many media outlets broadcasting from abroad also take partisan positions, use hostile rhetoric, and promote their favored side in the armed conflict.
A growing awareness about the weaponisation of Libyan media as part of the national power struggle has prompted a number of international organisations to try to tackle the issue. In July and October 2015, UNESCO facilitated discussions between editors and senior personnel at prominent Libyan media outlets as part of efforts to improve professional and ethical standards, and curb hate speech and incitement.
But the initiative did not gain sufficient traction, in large part because some of the worst offending media outlets were not represented. “How can they possibly hope to do anything about this problem if they don’t have media owner X and media owner Y and, more importantly, their external funders, in the room,” lamented one editor who attended.
Other initiatives, including by the UN support mission to Libya, various foreign embassies and international organisations such as BBC Media Action and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, have had limited impact for similar reasons.
More recent homegrown efforts include Falso, a digital research platform launched by the Libyan Centre for Freedom of the Press in 2020. It aims to monitor Libyan media content for hate speech, incitement, and what it refers to as “misleading news.”
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.
International Centre for Counter- Terrorism