Near the end of August 2014, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates launched airstrikes against what were characterized as Islamist-allied militias fighting near Tripoli, Libya. Or maybe they didn’t. The New York Times broke the story on August 25, 2014; Egypt denied it, the UAE didn’t comment, and U.S. officials made seemingly conflicting statements.
In Libya, the facts are still hostage to politics. The Tobruk-based government and forces under the umbrella of “Operation Dignity” that are allied with Egypt parrot Egypt’s denial; meanwhile, the competing Tripoli-based government, tied to the “Operation Dawn” military coalition that was allegedly targeted in the airstrikes, sticks with the Times‘ version.
Increasingly, information in and about Libya is colored by the conflicting narratives of warring parties rather than based on facts investigated and confirmed by professional reporters. One immediate cause of this phenomenon is the dearth of reporters, and one immediate consequence is misinformation that further fuels violence. That violence in turn kills, impedes, or scares journalists away, ensuring that the cycle continues.
The danger of reporting in Libya first hit home for the international press with the deaths by mortar fire of two of its own during the revolution in 2011: photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros. Freelance journalist James Foley, who was executed in Syria in August 2014 by the group calling itself the Islamic State, had been captured by pro-regime forces in Libya in 2011, while covering the war, in an incident in which a colleague, Anton Hammerl, was killed.
Libyan journalist Mohammed al-Nabbous, who started Libya Al-Hurra TV at the start of the uprising against the regime, was also killed that year. Since then, and in alarming numbers, the vast majority of journalists who are killed, threatened, or kidnapped in Libya are locals.
Before the revolution, there was virtually no independent press in Libya. Muammar Qaddafi’s authoritarian state violently suppressed anyone brave enough to speak out. The toppling of the regime created a space in which young journalists and media outlets could operate in relative freedom and start learning the craft of reporting; however, it also created a space in which armed groups could operate freely and consolidate their power through violence. As a result, the biggest threat to journalists now comes from a diverse array of armed groups operating outside central control who punish journalists they see as working against their interests.
One early example of this came in July 2012, when two journalists from the city of Misrata, Abdelgadir Fassouk and Yusuf Badi, were kidnapped by Qaddafi loyalists near the town of Bani Walid. When ordinary Misratans took to the streets in February of 2011 to protest against the Qaddafi regime, the regime’s violent response had come swiftly. Ordinary Misratans had picked up arms and begun to group together to fight back. Because they lived in a port city, they managed to survive the regime’s siege, receiving arms and supplies by ship. With NATO’s intervention, the battle turned in favor of Misrata, and these loosely armed groups made their way to the capital, Tripoli. There, at the end of August 2011, they were one of the two primary armed groupings that liberated the capital from Qaddafi’s forces (the other main revolutionary grouping came from the western mountain town of Zintan; ensuing divisions and turf battles between Zintani and Misratan militia groups continue to play an important role today).
Bani Walid, on the other hand, is a town that had strong ties to the Qaddafi regime, and many of its residents claim tribal links to Qaddafi’s tribe. As a result of this allegiance to Qaddafi (and perceived role in the military siege of Misrata), Misratans continued south to Bani Walid after capturing Tripoli. There, they lay siege to the town until the eventual cessation of hostilities. Tensions between the two cities continued after the war.
On July 10, 2012, during a reporting trip in Misrata, only a few days after Fassouk and Badi had been captured, locals told me that elders from the city were meeting to discuss how best to respond, and everyone perceived the capture of the journalists as being linked to the political and military hostility between Misrata and Bani Walid. Over the next several days, tensions ratcheted up, and there were reports that Misratan militias had surrounded Bani Walid and were preparing to lay siege. Fassouk and Badi were ultimately released, but only after intense negotiations between elders from both cities and the then-interim governing body, the National Transitional Council.
Since then, journalists have increasingly been caught in the crossfire between two opposing sides. Dozens of journalists have been kidnapped and captured, and some have been killed. In the past two years, CPJ has confirmed that two journalists were killed in direct relation to their work. Saleh Ayyad Hafyana, a photographer for Fassato News Agency, was killed covering a protest on November 18, 2013, when a militia opened fire on the demonstrators. On May 26, 2014, Muftah Bu Zeid, editor of the newspaper Brnieq, was murdered by unknown gunmen in Benghazi as he distributed his paper, which had been critical of Islamist militias.
Other members of the press have been killed in less clear circumstances or for reasons that may not be related to journalism.
The kidnappings, killings, and unexplained deaths have caused journalists to be wary of covering the violence. “Fearing for my own safety will always limit my ability to go to places like Derna, for example,” said Mohamed Eljarh, a journalist and nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center who is based in Tobruk, only 170 kilometers from Derna–a comparatively short distance, given Libya’s massive geography.
At the time that Eljarh spoke, in late November 2014, Derna was controlled by violent extremists, some of whom had declared their allegiance to the Islamic State, well known for its abductions and executions of journalists. As a result, the city existed in a kind of media void. Trying to figure out the very basics of what is happening in such places, including who is in power and how that fits into the Libyan and the larger regional picture, is limited to tidbits of secondhand information, YouTube videos, and Facebook posts from the city. And even those who provide that secondhand information put their lives at risk. On November 11, 2014, three young activists in Derna–Siraj Ghatish, Mohamed Battu, and Mohamed al-Mesmari–were found beheaded. All three had been quietly conveying information about what was happening in the city, using social media networks.
In the absence of objective and complete reporting, extremists are free to control the dissemination of information. As far as anyone in the world can know about Derna, violent acts and violent extremists exist in opposition to other violent acts and violent actors, apart from any social, historical, political, or economic context. Meanwhile, if war crimes take place in Derna or between other groups, there is a good chance that no one outside will know. Yet even the suspicion that such crimes are taking place may be enough to prompt further violent responses.
Although Derna’s is an extreme case, rampant violence and chaos is taking its toll on the rest of Libya, too. In the absence of a state and in the thick of what many are calling a civil war, there is no professional police force or court system capable of investigating the motives or finding suspects behind any of these killings. At the same time, no group claims responsibility for the killings, and the anonymity of such killings sends a chilling message to anyone who would speak up.
Another part of the problem is a lack of professionalism in journalism, which some say has resulted in the targeting of reporters who are unambiguous about their biases. According to Reporters Without Borders, the late Motassem al-Warfalli was known as a supporter of the U.S.-designated terrorist group Ansar Al-Sharia. Conversely, many friends and supporters of peace activist and radio presenter Ben Saud and activist Sami Elkawafi have been quoted saying they believe the two were killed by Ansar Al-Sharia on September 19, 2014, because of their political positions. (None of the three victims appear in CPJ’s database of killed journalists because the organization has not established a link between their deaths and their work.)
But the problem of how journalists in Libya behave extends beyond a lack of professionalism and a lack of objectivity. Some media outlets have outright called for violence. The main dividing line politically in Libya is between those in the “Dignity” (Karama in Arabic) camp and those in the “Dawn” (Fajr in Arabic) camp. Each of these camps represents a loose coalition of forces, and identifying which groups fall into which camp is difficult given that alliances shift rapidly, public leaders are not fully in control of the armed forces they claim to lead, and each group inflates the size of their coalition in their public announcements. In its assessment of the opposing coalitions, The New York Times described Dawn as “the powerful militia from the commercial city of Misrata as well as both moderate and extremist Islamist groups.” Dignity, according to the Times, includes “a portion of the recently elected Parliament meeting there [in Tobruk]; fighters from eastern tribes and the western city of Zintan; militias of former Qaddafi soldiers; and military units under the control of a former Qaddafi general, Khalifa Hifter.” Dawn receives support from Turkey and Qatar, whereas Dignity receives support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Many Libyans working in the media sector have taken sides among these two major groupings. One Dignity-allied TV station, itself called Karama and based in Cairo, has regularly called for violence against its opponents.
“I’ve watched as a presenter on Karama channel would name X family for possibly harboring [someone from the U.S.-designated terrorist group] Ansar Al-Sharia and then, a couple days later, him correcting himself, saying: ‘No it wasn’t the same person, but same name,'” recounts one journalist who has been based in Libya for many years and asked to remain anonymous for this report out of concern for personal safety.
“You just think to yourself: What if people who saw the first broadcast didn’t watch the second broadcast?” the journalist adds, noting that no one is in a position to rein in militias who might act violently on faulty information.
It isn’t just such big media outlets that are inciting violence. Eljarh has seen dangerous misinformation and incitement to violence spread through rumors and dubious social media posts.
“Someone on Facebook here from Tobruk posted that ‘blah, blah’ has been killed and ‘blah, blah’ killed him. He named the wrong family as the one that killed that person, and, because of revenge, people will actually take up arms … people were actually getting their arms ready in case someone would attack them because of a Facebook rumor,” Eljarh observed.
The Dawn coalition that controls Tripoli, the capital, has also helped create a dangerous media atmosphere. The head of the foreign media office in Tripoli gathered the representatives of foreign media outlets in the city on November 13, 2014. At the meeting, the official allegedly told them to stop referring to the competing government based in Tobruk as the internationally recognized government and to stop referring to Dawn forces as militias. The details of the meeting, as well as some journalists’ vehement objections to an attempt at censorship, were subsequently leaked on Facebook.
One journalist who was present described the meeting as a “form of intimidation,” compared the tactic to ones used previously by the Qaddafi regime to silence the press, and expressed anxiety that militias beyond the control of any central political command may interpret the meeting as a license to attack journalists or their families. More than that, the journalist said, despite the Dawn alliance’s public narrative that it considers its opponents in Dignity to be made up of ex-Qaddafi forces, the Dawn alliance has in fact employed some of the same people whom the Qaddafi regime used to employ to shadow visiting broadcast reporters.
The extreme polarization of the media landscape, as well as calls for violence through the media and the bullying of journalists by militias, has contributed to a discrediting of the few real remaining journalists who are trying to report the facts.
“Now the media is not respected by normal people, by the community,” said Ghaith Shennib, formerly a Benghazi-based journalist working for international news outlets. “Media reflect the reality, and if the reality is good, like what happened in 2011 [the successful uprising against the former regime], then people will love the media and the journalist and help them with all they have. But the reality now is very bad, so the media is not very welcome and they think things became this bad because of media and their propaganda.”
The Libyan press was shackled under the Qaddafi regime. More than that, it was nearly impossible for young people to even imagine becoming journalists, given that the education system was devoid of liberal arts and humanities studies. As the strictures of the Qaddafi state collapsed with the uprising and NATO intervention, average citizens began to share information and debate freely in the public sphere, primarily on the Internet through Facebook. Many young activists without experience moved into this free space to take up the specialized role of reporting. Shennib noted that a big part of the current media problem stems from the fact that many of these young reporters never learned the trade properly.
“The media in Libya is in a very bad level, where only a few journalists became real journalists,” Shennib said. “The others became more political activists by mentioning their opinions or what they want as the truth rather than saying the truths.”
Subjective reporting has both encouraged violence and damaged the credibility of the media, and the violence has stymied training programs aimed at developing young talent to build the foundations of a budding Fourth Estate.
“Some of the journalists left the country looking for an opportunity outside,” noted Talal Burnaz, a university student and project officer at 1Libya, a local nongovernmental organization that trains journalists. “Some of them left because they got threatened. There are only a few left who are still working and facing the bad situation here, and most of them are working with the international press.”
Apart from the danger that the current media climate directly poses to people’s lives and reputations, the fact that media is increasingly dominated by extreme partisans rather than professional reporters is having an effect on the big picture. Real stories are not getting chased down. Libya’s fundamental challenges, such as reconciliation, state-building, federalism, economic development, land rights and oil-wealth distribution–issues that festered under Qaddafi and contributed to the revolution–are subjugated to competing narratives and resulting violence.
There are a “lot of stories you think this would be good to chase, but … bureaucracy doesn’t help, there is zero transparency, no chain of command, and you don’t know where to start,” said the journalist, who has been based in Libya for many years, who requested anonymity. “One of the problems in the last three years is [that] we live on sources and trusting certain sources to get reliable info, but you’d be lying to yourself as a journalist here if you say this person is 100 percent reliable … There’s no independence when it’s people you talk to, whether its analysts or journalists … Sometimes you’ll come across a character you don’t know, and in the back of your head you think: ‘Who does he know? Which militias is he associated with?'”
The problem is morbid for journalists still brave enough to work in Libya.
“For me, half my contact list is either dead or in exile,” the journalist said, noting that the “narrative is definitely driven by those who hold the guns. It feels like the entire country is being held hostage. Not just elected officials–anyone trying to work.”
All of Libya’s underlying structural and political challenges are subsumed by the media promotion and media coverage of war, as narrated by the warring parties themselves. More than that, the Dawn and Dignity coalitions are encouraging a simple black-and-white reading of events on the ground, with Dawn groups accusing Dignity of representing the old regime of Qaddafi, ostensibly allied with autocrats in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. In contrast, the Dignity alliance sees the Dawn group as part of a violent, anti-nationalist, Islamist monolith allied with Qatar and Turkey. Like any powerful narrative that inspires young men to risk their lives in battle, both stories contain some truth and some myth.
The reality is more complex. Neither Dawn nor Dignity is monolithic, nor is either a completely unified coalition. In post-revolution Libya, there are many arenas of conflict occurring simultaneously and across different battlefields throughout the country. There is a wide range of armed groups, from tribal networks to neighborhood militias, city-state militia blocs, militias grouped around political ideology, and militias representing ethnic groups. As the root causes of these layers of conflicts go unreported and therefore untreated, the Dawn and Dignity coalitions are each trying to gain a monopoly over these numerous arenas of violence.
“Libyans are being drawn into these opposing corners. In their hearts they know it’s more complex, but the lines are being drawn,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“These lines are instrumentalized and temporary–let’s remember the 2012 clashes between Zintanis and Hifter,” he said, referring to militia groups from the city-state of Zintan and the general in charge of Operation Dignity (two groups that clashed in the past but are in an alliance at the time of this writing). “Nothing is immutable.”
The success of these myopic war narratives is possible largely because Libya lacks a myth-busting Fourth Estate. The leaders of the major warring parties tell their stories and garner supporters without concern that the media will closely examine the truth of their claims, their financial interests, their battlefield conduct, or their links abroad. For the moment, it seems that these narratives are winning and fighting groups are consolidating their gains. This polarization of Libya’s politics leaves no group untouched.
“The fact that you have very well-funded, polarized media outlets based in Cairo or the Gulf that are pushing these opposing narratives doesn’t leave many people in the middle ground that can focus on core issues and steer a pragmatic path,” Wehrey said.
The consequences of the lack of objective reporting are potentially dire, and not only for Libya. The violence has created significant threats to its neighbors by making production of Libya’s vast oil reserves extremely volatile, by creating free space for violent extremists with regional ambitions to operate and train, and by opening unregulated avenues for smuggling.
None of Libya’s neighbors can properly assist in responding to these threats without accurate facts and details researched and investigated by objective journalists. Nor can Libyans themselves stop the violence when they do not have the facts to make informed decisions. Ordinary Libyans desperately desire an explanation for the violence and revenge killings in post-uprising Libya and for the collapse of their country. If the information available is almost exclusively propaganda, they are likely to latch on to whichever story suits them best. They then align themselves with one of the opposing and inflammatory narratives that are inevitably predicated on violence, which is itself enabled by the lack of a functioning state police force, military, and judicial system–and so the cycle continues.
Fadil Aliriza is a journalist who has worked in Libya, Tunisia, and Turkey. He is pursuing a master’s degree in Middle East politics at SOAS, University of London. Follow him on Twitter @FadilAliriza.