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.
Weaponising Libya’s media and weaponising the word “terrorism”
In the initial phase after the fall of the Gaddafi regime, media reporting of terrorist groups in Libya was sparse.
This was due partly to the chaotic media landscape in the country in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 uprising, with new outlets opening and closing soon afterwards due to poor financing and lacking of training and professional management.
Furthermore, the terrorist presence was limited to scattered elements linked to AQIM, particularly around Derna in eastern Libya and in the country’s southern flank. The Libyan public imagination was not yet focused on the threat of terrorism and this was reflected in domestic media coverage.
That changed with the September 2012 attack on a US diplomatic compound in Benghazi which claimed the lives of American ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues.
It brought a spotlight on extremist groups present in Benghazi and other parts of eastern Libya, particularly Ansar al-Sharia, which had been formed earlier that year.
Libya’s media landscape became notably more polarised after February 2014, the month when Haftar was accused by then-Prime Minister Ali Zeidan of attempting a coup. Critics of the General National Congress (GNC) – which had been elected in July 2012 – insisted its mandate had expired, though this was contested by others, including a number of foreign diplomats.
Libya Awalan, the television channel owned by businessman Hassan Tatanaki, began a campaign against the GNC, claiming it was “illegal” and dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. It also accused some parliamentary blocs of “supporting terrorism.” When Haftar launched his operation in Benghazi in May that year, Libya Awalan was one of his main supporters.
It framed his operation as an anti-terrorist campaign aimed at “cleaning Benghazi from the Brotherhood and the khawarij” – the latter a reference to a sect that revolted against one of early caliphs of Islam and broke away from the mainstream.
The term “khawarij” has become widespread in Libya since 2014 to pejoratively describe those who are perceived to misuse Islam through extremism and is often used interchangeably with the word “terrorist” or “Daeshi” (a reference to a member of IS).
Echoing Haftar’s scattergun approach, not only did Libya Awalan directly accuse Ansar al-Sharia of being responsible for assassinations and bombings in Benghazi, it also conflated other armed units – including brigades that identified as revolutionary rather than Islamist – with the group, thus implying their complicity in terrorist activity.
Libya Awalan’s coverage illustrated how partisan reporting of the war in Benghazi served to obscure realities on the ground there and later elsewhere in the country. The tendency by pro-Haftar media, including Libya Awalan, to blanket label all critics and opponents of his operation as “terrorists” or “terrorist sympathisers” created a febrile atmosphere.
One result was that activity by elements linked to al-Qaeda or, from late 2014, Islamic State, was often overlooked or not taken seriously enough by anti-Haftar factions who believed his campaign was a pretext to ultimately impose himself as military ruler.
From late summer 2014, the word “terrorist” was being used by the House of Representatives (elected in June that year to replace the GNC) to describe the Libyan Dawn coalition (a mix of Islamist and non-Islamist armed groups) that had driven rival militias – then aligned with Haftar – from Tripoli.
The House of Representatives (HoR) had been due to sit in Benghazi but decided to move to the eastern town of Tobruk. Prime Minister Abdullah Thinni fled to the eastern town of Baida where he aligned himself with Haftar – after denouncing him as a renegade just months before – and adopted a similar narrative.
Foreign diplomats and journalists familiar with the reality of the situation in Tripoli were dismissive of such crude propaganda. “Interviewing Thinni and his colleagues at that time was extremely frustrating,” said a journalist for a major international media organisation.
He added: “They kept insisting that terrorists were controlling Tripoli, that al-Qaeda were in charge there. It was embarrassing. We just left it out of our reports.” But if reputable foreign media were not reporting that narrative, officials from Thinni’s government, their allies in the HoR and figures from Haftar’s coalition kept propagating it through sympathetic outlets, including Libyan and pan-Arab television channels.
Libya Awalan was joined by a number of other pro-Haftar channels, including one named Karama (Dignity) after the title Haftar had given his armed campaign, which became particularly notorious for incitement in support of his operation.
Its presenters explicitly named individuals as “terrorists” or entire families as “terrorist sympathisers” on air, sometimes giving their addresses, which led to the targeting of both people and property. “It was shocking,” recalled one Libyan journalist. “This was pure incitement. A dangerous hysteria had taken hold.”
At times, the label was used opportunistically. “It became a trend to accuse political or business competitors as terrorists so they can be eliminated,” said another journalist. Pro-Haftar channels, including Libya Awalan, also broadcast the forced confessions of detainees captured by his forces.
In a June 2015 report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented how individuals held at Criminal Investigation Department in Benghazi and at Bersis prison east of the city said their homes were attacked and set on fire after their “confessions” were broadcast.
One detainee interviewed by HRW said he was forced to appear on Libya Awalan to confess to crimes he did not commit:
They arrested me at my house and were accusing me of being a fighter. A TV crew came to the prison and filmed me. The correspondent, his assistant, and an officer were all present in the room when the filming was under way.
They stopped filming three or four times and the officer would beat me because they wanted me to “confess” that I consider the army and the police to be apostates. The correspondent would say “this detainee is not yet ready” and the beatings would continue.
Another detainee at Bersis prison told HRW he had been forced to appear four or five times on television and that he had confessed to killing eighty-two people and involvement in the killing of the US ambassador in September 2012.
HRW observed that marks on the detainee’s upper arms appeared consistent with his allegations that he had been beaten in custody. Abdulrazak al Naduri, Haftar’s Chief of Staff, told HRW: “The televised confessions [of detainees] were an illstudied project by the General Intelligence Agency to try and raise awareness on the dangers of terrorism, yet it ended up being a double-edged sword.”
Other than this claim by Naduri, there was no other evidence that such an initiative existed. The use of televised confessions underscored the simplistic approach of Haftar’s LAAF to counter terrorism more generally, whether militarily or through strategic communication.
Recycling terrorist propaganda
One of the challenges faced by Libyan media outlets in their reporting on designated terrorist groups has been how to navigate and dissect the propaganda such groups produced and circulated, particularly on social media.
Between 2012 and 2014, Ansar al-Sharia developed a relatively sophisticated media operation under its alRaya Media Productions Foundation. As with other jihadist groups, it also maintained an active social media presence. It utilised platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus to disseminate propaganda – including showcasing its charitable work and anti-drugs campaigns – and attract new recruits.
The group also used its network of Twitter accounts to circulate audio clips from a radio station that it had established in Benghazi. Ansar al-Sharia’s social media accounts were regularly shut down following complaints to Facebook and Twitter but the group swiftly launched new versions.
In general, Libyan media outlets tended to report on Ansar al-Sharia by lifting content from its own platforms. Hence, media coverage very often resulted in the unwitting amplification of the group’s messaging. There was little debate over how such media coverage might provide “the oxygen of publicity” to a group that was already trying to win hearts and minds through charitable activities and providing civil services such as maintenance of public areas.
There were few attempts to either investigate how Ansar al-Sharia operated or interrogate its leaders, partly due to fears that individual journalists or the outlets they worked for could be targeted as a result.
One notable exception was the Libya Al Ahrar television channel. It not only reported on allegations that the Ansar al-Sharia members were responsible for assassinations in Benghazi, but brought its leader Mohamed alZahawi on air to respond to such accusations.
In November 2013, Mahmoud al-Barassi, a member of Ansar al-Sharia’s shura council, gave an interview to Libya Al Ahrar, in which he denounced the transitional government, the army and the police as apostates.
He declared that Ansar al-Sharia would “fight people who seek democracy and secularism” as well as anyone who opposes the group. In the eyes of many Libyans, that broadcast revealed “the real face” of Ansar al-Sharia. Soon after its takeover of Sirte, Islamic State commandeered the local offices of state television and two private radio stations, converting them into mouthpieces.
As Libya began to feature heavily in IS propaganda – whether videos of mass killings or articles in the group’s Dabiq magazine – the dearth of professionalism within Libya’s media sector meant that domestic media struggled to provide coverage that was not sensationalist.
Several outlets broadcast or published gruesome footage and images from IS attacks, often lifted directly from IS propaganda. Others rushed to report claims of responsibility even if the sourcing was thin.
A number of outlets aired interviews with Libyan personalities claiming the videos of mass killings by IS were fabricated.
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