The military coup lead by Gaddafi back in 1969 led to dramatic changes in the country; needless to say, there were dramatic changes to journalism too.
Free press was a direct threat to the new emerging regime. Slowly, violently, and over time, press in the then “free Libya” was suppressed. As a result and as means to getting news, people had become dependent on information received through word of mouth. In those days the credibility of the news available was obviously an issue, given that rumour circulated as easily as fact. In a media-less society, by the time news travels from point A to point B, it might either be exaggerated or downplayed. Moreover, the idea that the regime would intentionally spread a rumour to serve its own purposes was always a possibility. Media tools such as the so-called “revolutionary” newspapers and TV were state owned and, therefore, had absolutely no credibility.
When people revolted against the regime back in February, they felt helpless. When it came to getting the word out, they simply couldn’t do it. There was no foreign media to transmit the image to the outside world, nor an unbiased local media to serve their cause. Once the whole eastern region of Libya fell into the hands of the then “rebels”, the borders with Egypt were opened to allow foreign reporters to get in.
“We had legions of volunteers that came to our hotel to help show us around” one reporter said.
Many Libyans saw foreign journalists as their saviours and a means by which they could tell the world that the Gaddafi regime was made up of complete and utter lies. If it wasn’t for their presence, the whole revolution would have failed.
Inspired by the presence of the foreign press, Libyans started their own local press corps. The number of newspapers that emerged after 17 February was unprecedented. In less than two months, over 180 newspapers were being printed in the city of Benghazi, and a minimum of 10 channels were broadcasting between TV and radio.
Now that the war is over, the challenge will be to keep the momentum of the media revolution going. The number of newspapers could easily dwindle, because so many are presently relying on students, or volunteer contributors who will have to return to their jobs in due course. Regardless of who the papers rely on, it is a matter of paramount importance that journalism becomes a valid career option, for freelancers and full-time staff alike. Further to this, the concept of unbiased news must be thoroughly explained and become the norm in Libyan media.
It may, very well, be possible that there will be more challenges ahead. There have been a few organisations that have come to Libya to help give courses to local journalists but eventually didn’t. The window of time between keeping unbiased independent news organisations and going back to square one – to state-owned biased media – is limited and depends on how soon experts can step in.
Suliman Ali Zway worked as a fixer during the Libyan revolution, he and his colleague Osama Alfitory have since been awarded the Martin Adler Prize, which recognizes the dedication and bravery of local freelancers who have played a significant role in the reporting of a major news story.