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.
Exploiting the terrorism media narrative – at home and abroad
A particularly revealing example of how Libyan partisans have sought to exploit media to smear their opponents as terrorists was highlighted by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in 2017.
According to the CPJ, al-Nabaa television channel broadcast a leaked audio recording of a conversation between Mahmoud alMisrati, a media owner known for his provocative online and broadcast commentary, and an unidentified aide to Haftar in March that year.
In the recording, the two discuss a campaign to smear the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB – an armed group which had recently seized control of eastern Libya oil facilities from Haftar’s forces and handed control of them to the Government of National Accord in Tripoli) as terrorists.
The BDB was comprised of former military personnel, police officers and militiamen opposed to Haftar’s campaign. According to the aired recording, the aide said that Haftar’s camp wanted to convince people that al-Qaeda had taken over the facilities.
The CPJ detailed how, in a call with an al-Nabaa reporter, al-Misrati confirmed the authenticity of the audio recording and accused al-Nabaa – which had an antiHaftar editorial line – of being run by terrorists. “Yes, I do steer public opinion,” he stated. “I manufacture public opinion and shape it, and we are the ones who guide people.”
In the same statement, the CPJ condemned an attack on the Tripoli offices of al-Nabaa by gunmen who set the building on fire and stole administrative records. The CPJ noted that hours after al-Nabaa was targeted, another television channel named al-Raseefa – which was generally sympathetic to Haftar’s faction – published on its Facebook page personal details of al-Nabaa employees including names and salaries and described the station as “terrorist media.”
As foreign meddling in the Libyan conflict increased, so too did what appeared to be often coordinated messaging between Libyan media outlets affiliated with various factions and pan-Arab media aligned with their respective regional backers.
In June 2017, the defence and national security committee of the House of Representatives based in eastern Libya drew up a list of Libyans and Libyan entities – including al-Nabaa channel and Tanasuh, an anti-Haftar TV station linked to the former mufti Sadeq al-Gheriani – it accused of cooperating with Qatar or being involved in terrorism. It echoed a similar list published by Gulf States blockading Qatar.
The House of Representatives list was published in full by several Libyan and regional media outlets, most of them pro-Haftar. The High Council of State, a body established as part of the Libyan Political Agreement signed in 2015, said those who compiled the list were “using the term terrorism to vilify and denigrate their political opponents.”
In April 2019, Haftar launched an offensive to capture Tripoli from the UN-recognised GNA. Haftar’s camp and their allied media outlets subsequently fell back on old tropes to justify their offensive, framing the resulting battle as one against “terrorist groups” and militias which helped fan hate speech and incitement, particularly on social media.
Evidence emerged of foreign-initiated pro-Haftar social media campaigns which painted his opponents as terrorists. The House of Representatives in eastern Libya voted to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist group” and outlaw it, a move that fuelled partisan media narratives about the war on Tripoli.
Pro-Haftar media and commentators accused prominent figures in state institutions of being members of the Brotherhood and therefore “terrorists.”
In a study published in June 2019, PeaceLab reported that there had been a “clear uptick” in the use of the term “khawarij” – used by Haftar supporters and allied media since 2014 – on Libyan social media in early April, corresponding with the date Haftar launched his Tripoli offensive.
It also noted a significant increase in the use of several other hate speech terms during the same period. In July that year, the eastern authorities aligned with Haftar banned eleven TV stations they deemed hostile, accusing the channels of “justifying terrorism” and “threatening social peace.”
RSF called on the ban to be lifted and asked the eastern authorities to explain the order it had issued to municipal councils not to cooperate with the channels. An episode concerning an Italian blogger illustrated the echo chamber effect that often characterises the creation and evolution of partisan media narratives in Libya.
The blogger, named Vanessa Tomassini, published articles on a little known Italian language website and came to the attention of Haftar’s camp when she claimed – without offering evidence – that members of the defunct Ansar al-Sharia group were fighting with GNA-aligned forces in Tripoli.
She was subsequently embraced by pro-Haftar media and interviewed by Libyan TV channel 218 and also Sky News Arabia. Tomassini was invited to Benghazi to take part in what she described as a “political salon” organised by the foreign ministry of the unrecognised Haftar-aligned eastern authority to discuss “the role of the media in the fight against terrorism.”
In recent years, Haftar’s opponents have co-opted such language and now refer to their adversaries as “terrorists,” further undermining focus on designated terrorist groups. Ironically, one of the most outspoken anti-Haftar propagandists is Noman Benotman, a London-based former member of the LIFG who was at the time close to Haftar and publicly supported him after Haftar launched his operations in 2014.
Benotman, who has a huge following on Twitter (with over 400,000 followers, he is by far the most followed Libyan personality), regularly appears on Libya al-Ahrar TV channel, where he denounces Haftar and his allies as “terrorists.”
From 2014 to the present, Khalifa Haftar and his political and armed allies – who possess a formidable aligned media machine both domestic and regional – have branded their critics and opponents “terrorists” or “terrorist sympathisers.”
The publication or broadcasting of such labelling has often led to the targeting of people and their property. This blanket use of the word “terrorist” has also resulted in the term losing meaning in the Libyan context.
More recently, Haftar’s opponents have sought to co-opt such rhetoric, using the word “terrorist” to describe Haftar and his supporters, particularly since he sparked a new war with his failed attempt to capture Tripoli from the UN-recognised government in April 2019.
This has undermined attempts to conduct in-depth reporting on designated terrorist organisations present in Libya including IS and al-Qaeda linked groups.
Journalists who have tried to report on these groups and the communities in which they emerged run the risk of not only being targeted by the organisations themselves – both IS and al-Qaeda linked groups have either kidnapped, killed or otherwise threatened reporters in Libya – but also being branded sympathisers if they seek nuance in their work.
Journalists have been threatened or detained due to such perceptions, particularly in eastern Libya. Subjective journalism that serves belligerents continues to dominate the Libyan media landscape, fomenting social tensions and even violence, as well as eroding the credibility of the media.
This, in turn, makes the prospect of Libya ever developing a trusted, professional media sector seem remote in the long term. Amid the noise of extreme partisanship that characterises most of Libya’s media, nuanced reporting on designated terrorist groups that could deepen understanding of how radicalisation happens and why in order to help prevent it in future is impossible.
- 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 should be encouraged, particularly regarding freedom of movement and independence of reporting.
- As Libya’s internationally recognised authority, the GNA should be encouraged to demonstrate robust commitment to the principle of media freedom and help ensure media workers are protected from harassment and intimidation.
- Efforts to tackle hate speech and incitement should include punitive measures against the worst offenders – whether individuals or the media outlets that host them – inside or outside Libya. This could take the form of “de-platforming” in the case of social media but also Libyan TV channels broadcasting from regional satellite networks.
- Given the weaponising of Libya’s media and the way it has helped drive the country’s conflicts since 2014, questions related to the funding and ownership of media outlets by belligerents should be part of any dialogue process to end the current conflict.
- Training programmes for the Libyan media sector should include modules on how to report on terrorism to encourage more nuanced reporting in future. These should comprise training in investigate journalism – including how to handle propaganda material, – as well as teaching media workers how to report on terrorist attacks in a sensitive and nonsensationalist way.
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 recent publications include an examination of the growing Madkhali-Salafist trend in Libya and a paper on the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) prison revisions. Her work has appeared in the Economist, Foreign Policy, the New Yorker and the Guardian. She is a contributing author to an edited volume on the Libyan revolution and its aftermath published by Hurst/Oxford University Press. 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