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.
Risks and challenges for journalists reporting on terrorism in Libya
With Libya’s slide into civil conflict in 2014, journalists increasingly became targets. The growing partisanship of many media outlets led belligerents on all sides to view media in general but also individual journalists as part of the conflict.
RSF ranked Libya as the fifth most deadly country for journalists in 2014. Shortly after Haftar launched his operation in Benghazi in May that year, Miftah Bouzeid, the editor of Burniq newspaper and a prominent critic of Islamist groups, was shot dead in the city.
Later that year, Motassem Warfalli, a radio presenter whom RSF said was “known to be a supporter of Ansar al-Sharia” was killed by gunmen. The two Libyan towns where Islamic State either gained a significant hold after 2014 (Derna) or took over entirely (Sirte) suffered from a media vacuum, not least because of the risks of ground reporting.
In April 2015, four Libyan journalists and an Egyptian cameraman with local channel Barqa TV were found dead near the town of al-Bayda in eastern Libya, having been abducted in 2014. Two Tunisian journalists were kidnapped near the eastern town of Brega in September 2014 and never seen again. Militants linked to IS were accused of responsibility in both cases.
The disappearance of a number of Libyan and foreign journalists believed to have been abducted by IS in Libya, along with the filmed beheadings by IS of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff – both of whom were known in Libya because they had spent extended periods there reporting on the 2011 uprising – in Syria, showed the dangers of reporting from territory where IS had a presence.
There were also dangers for journalists who challenged the narratives of partisan actors. Journalists – both Libyan and foreign – who sought to relay a more nuanced portrait of the situation in Derna, for example, were threatened and intimidated. “If I didn’t echo the language of Haftar and his supporters and describe all the people they were fighting as “terrorists”, his supporters came after me on social media. I was terrified the attacks would spill over into real life,” said one reporter.
Several were subjected to smear campaigns on social media accusing them of being “terrorist sympathisers” or “terrorist supporters.” A number were detained and questioned by Haftar’s forces. A Libyan who worked for international media noted that it was only when he moved abroad that he felt he could write about the situation. “I didn’t cover Derna when I was living in Libya because anything that ran contrary to [Haftar’s camp] propaganda was considered a threat and that was dangerous for me. Being outside gave me the space to report what was happening.”
The launch of a military operation to rout IS from Sirte in May 2016 provided media an opportunity to report from the town, albeit while embedded with Bunyan alMarsous, the coalition of ground forces established by the UN-backed government in Tripoli.
Journalists covering the battle for Sirte had to navigate the limitations of embedding, given they could see only what the forces they accompanied wanted them to see.
Some of the Libyan reporters also had to deal with smears by Haftar supporters, unhappy that their opponents (Bunyan al-Marsous was comprised largely of anti-Haftar forces) could claim credit for dislodging IS from its Libyan stronghold. “I was accused of all sorts of things because I reported on the battle for Sirte,” recalled one Libyan journalist who worked for a foreign media outlet. “The victory of Bunyan al-Marsous over IS was an embarrassment for Haftar because he wanted to claim the monopoly on fighting terrorism.”
Media workers were targeted during the Tripoli war sparked by Haftar’s offensive in 2019. In August that year, armed men – believed to be Haftar aligned – targeted Mohamed Eshbeni, a journalist and presenter at Tanasuh television channel. “The gunmen threatened me because I work as a journalist and said I was part of Muslim Brotherhood Group and Libyan Fighting Group [LIFG].” Eshbeni wrote on his Facebook page.83
The risks to journalists attempting nuanced reporting of Libya’s complex security dynamics remain high, particularly in eastern Libya. As one reporter observed:
Being a reporter on the ground is like operating in a minefield as any mistake could cost you your life or put you at risk of being a target of public condemnation and discrimination. If you allow their opponents express their views or you attempt to portray things objectively, you might be accused of being a terrorist sympathiser or infiltrator.
Those who work for foreign media are particularly vulnerable because when reputable foreign media outlets attempt to shed light on the facts in an unbiased way and free of agendas, it will conflict with coverage by the highly biased and polarized Libyan media.
Many journalists – both local and foreign – reporting from on the ground practice self-censorship to avoid being targeted by either security actors or partisan TV commentators and angry mobs on social media.
The impact of citizen journalism on media reporting of terrorism
In Derna and Sirte, a handful of local stringers and activists tried to convey what was happening on the ground using social media networks – often under pseudonymous accounts – or passing information to journalists from Libyan and international media outlets.
But verification remained a challenge, particularly when it came to information provided by activists. This was particularly true of the Derna situation, where supporters of Haftar’s campaign sought to lump together all his opponents there as “Daesh” or “al-Qaeda”, which obscured the more complicated realities on the ground.
As a result, a number of foreign media outlets relying on activists inaccurately asserted that IS “controlled” the town. This dependence on partisan sources and second or third hand information together with poor – or no – verification processes produced reporting that was problematic on several levels.
In 2015, questionably sourced reports began surfacing in Libyan and foreign media outlets regarding the situation in Derna that appeared to conveniently echo stories about IS in Syria and Iraq. One example was the “child brides in Derna” story that appeared in a number of foreign media outlets.
One such report quoted a local activist claiming that there were “four to five cases of under-age brides” being married off to foreign IS militants every week in the town, an eye-catching assertion given the population of Derna (over 100,000). The activist went on to detail stories of “sex-related injuries” along with “the spread of STDs and the growing prevalence of miscarriages, premature and stillbirths.” These claims were challenged by a number of Libyan commentators, including commentators from Derna.
On several occasions when it came to coverage of Derna, media reports were clearly reliant on single sourcing and as a result lacked not only balance but also accuracy. In one example, a 2016 report in the Libya Herald, a widely read English language online publication, repeated what a single unnamed source had said about Muftah Hamza, an army officer who opposed Haftar.
Hamza had joined forces – along with other anti-Haftar officers – with the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC) to drive IS from the town. The DMSC denied any affiliation or link with al-Qaeda. Not only did the Libya Herald repeat unquestioningly the source’s inaccurate assertion that Hamza was a member of the DMSC, it also repeated without question the source’s claim that he was “an extremist with links to al-Qaeda.”
Furthermore, the article did not include any response from Hamza to the allegations made against him. Such practices were not limited to coverage of Derna but were widespread across the Libyan media landscape, underscoring the lack of professionalism in a sector where many reporters began their careers as “citizen journalists” and most had no training in areas such as media ethics or media law.
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