From High Profile to Exile

April 27, 2016 8:00 AM ET

Heba Alshibani did not set out to become a journalist. She had expected to become an academic, as many members of her Libyan family had before the February 2011 uprising that led to the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi. But when the violence did not abate after Qaddafi's overthrow, Alshibani witnessed events that she felt compelled to record and share. She had no training as a journalist, but had a penchant for exposing "wrong-doings," as she puts it, and felt an almost instinctive need to bring them to light.

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So Alshibani began documenting street violence on her cell phone, and soon found herself sharing her videos with local media. That led other outlets to use her reports, and within two years she had worked her way up through Libyan TV in production and with Reuters Libya from a presenter to a manager.

Her ascent required her to take risks in a media environment that had been restrictive for decades, especially for women. "When I ran a show on women's issues, I discussed issues that are never brought up in Libyan households, like rape," she recently recalled from her home in neighboring Malta, where she works as a presenter for Libya's Channel. "I was not going to have a housekeeping show given the times that the country was experiencing."

But Alshibani soon found the story turning on her.

Some Libyan political figures did not take kindly to her "directness," she said. In 2014, she felt compelled to flee after one of them sent her a threatening message through a fellow journalist in Misrata warning her to leave or face the consequences. She declined to name the official for security reasons, she said, but she did as she was told, under Reuters' direction. Now she covers Libya from abroad, one of many female journalists who have left the country due to continuing instability and a deep-seated cultural conflict that confers upon them a dangerously high profile.

"Everyone including my mentor advised me to leave," Alshibani said. "Finally, one day last year, the security personnel at Reuters came to me and said that I had to evacuate with my husband and children." After three frenetic years of covering assassinations, bombings, migrant crises and the disintegration of the country into "multiple Libyas," her exit was abrupt. She has not returned.

During the four-year battle between rival factions to control Libya's post-revolutionary political landscape, women journalists have become acutely aware of their visibility. Reporting in the unstable country is challenging for anyone, but particularly for women, owing to deep-seated cultural views about gender roles and the efforts of rival factions to coerce the media--especially local outlets--to take sides.

Despite the loosening of Qaddafi-era press restrictions and a proliferation of print publications and TV channels since the uprising, there is no consensus among women journalists interviewed for this story, many of whom declined to be named due to fear of repercussions, about whether journalism in Libya has benefitted from Qaddafi's departure or whether women have greater opportunities or are treated equally as professionals today. Qaddafi's government limited the media in the name of stability and order, and since his overthrow, the media has been privatized and opened to a greater diversity of voices. The downside is that the diversity of voices can be inflammatory, andjournalists are frequently manipulated or targeted by rival factions--a situation made more dangerous due to the lack of security. Stratified gender roles only add to the risks for female journalists.

Images of Libyans who were killed during the 2011 siege of Misrata in the city's war museum. Women journalists have become acutely aware of their visibility since the uprising. (Iason Athanasiadis)

The majority of humanitarian organizations, U.N. agencies and foreign media offices left Libya during the summer of 2014, when the highly contested June elections led to renewed clashes between rival militias. Few Western reporters, male or female, have returned.

A decrease in on-the-ground reporting has created a media vacuum, which has been exploited by rival factions who seek to co-opt remaining coverage. Writing for the Committee to Protect Journalists in the 2015 edition of Attacks on the Press, Fadil Aliriza noted that facts in post-revolutionary Libya are "hostage to politics" as a result of competing narratives from rival factions. "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," Aliriza wrote.

In April 2015, Reporters Without Borders reported that among the more recent women journalists to flee Libya was Sirine El Amari, who had been France 24's Tripoli correspondent before leaving in November 2014 due to threats and repeated questioning by authorities in Tripoli about her reports.

Some of the challenges that journalists face in Libya's highly fragmented political terrain are common to many conflict zones, with geography and alliances often governing access to stories and influencing journalists' personal safety. But in Libya, all sides seem to recognize the importance of controlling the media narrative, and tend to see reporters and photographers as integral to the conflict, shaping the narrative and, in some cases, prompting action. Women journalists often represent potent symbols, and inevitably experience an added layer of difficulty.

Even in pre-revolution Libya, being a female reporter was considered "social suicide," according to journalist Manal Bouseifi, who began reporting for a state news outlet in the early 2000s when media outlets were under Qaddafi's control. Bouseifi contends that such attitudes toward women journalists, especially those choosing to cover politics and hard news, have prevailed among conservative factions and even among many average Libyans.

As in many post-Arab Spring countries, political instability and violence in Libya is frequently reduced by the Western media to a contest between secular and Islamist groups. Though the reality is far more complicated, there is no question that the media is frequently caught in the crossfire. As a result, many women journalists have felt compelled to cover Libya's turmoil from neighboring Tunisia, Egypt, or in Alshibani's case, Malta, which are considered relative safe havens in the region, though with more than a few asterisks attached. Some who fled said they have stopped reporting due to intimidation or lack of direct access to the country.

Alshibani, a member of a prominent Libyan family who married into an equally powerful clan, went into hiding at the start of the 2011 revolution due to her fear of persecution and kidnapping. During that period, many Libyans were afraid to even watch the news on TV for fear of reprisal, she said. "People were huddling around televisions sets and watching news with the volume at its lowest," she recalled.

Today, rival militias and competing government entities seldom agree on anything beyond the importance of controlling the media, which makes the stakes extremely high for journalists, whatever their gender or affiliation, but particularly for women, who stand out. In August 2013, the Guardian reported that a journalist had been targeted by gunmen in Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city. Khawlija al-Amami, a presenter for the al-Ahrar TV station, had been shot at by gunmen who pulled up beside her car. She later received a text message warning her to "stop your journalism" or be killed. In April 2015, TV journalist Muftah al-Qatrani was shot dead in his office at Al-Anwar, a privately owned television production company.

An estimated 1,700 armed groups were active in Libya in 2015, according to the Global Conflict Tracker of the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent think tank. One female foreign journalist who has covered Libya since the beginning of the revolution, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, said the proliferation of armed groups has led to a "fierce battle for narrative," and that the diversity of voices in Libya has contributed to increasing polarization over those competing narratives. In addition to physical threats, women journalists in Libya report having been socially ostracized, sexually harassed, attacked on social media and generally discriminated against.

Though some women journalists say they were grudgingly tolerated during the Qaddafi era, all journalists were required to toe the government line. Today, they have greater freedom to report, but that freedom is fraught with perils. Comparatively relaxed views of gender roles are typically limited to cities such as Tripoli and Misrata, yet even there, dark undercurrents exist. The majority of the country is dominated by a highly patriarchal society characterized by strict gender segregation.

Journalists interviewed for this story reported that the treatment of women reporters and photographers throughout Libya varies according to whether they are Libyan, Western, Muslim, or non-Muslim. The foreign journalist who declined to be identified by name said female Western reporters work under different, unspoken rules and are permitted a code of conduct that would normally breach social norms. She said she has been able to overcome gender limitations, however, while helping train local journalists before the uprising, she observed that "the general confidence levels of young female journalists" was low because they lacked full acceptance and felt negative pressure from their families and communities. In most cases, the women reporters did not receive as much training as the men and were more reticent when conducting interviews with public figures, she said.

"It was often implied that a [Libyan] female journalist's work was somehow less respectable," she said. Because she stood out as an unveiled Western woman, "On one of my last trips I wore hijab for the first time, not because I felt the need to adhere to Libyan social norms, but because we knew by then that there were ISIS cells operating in the region and car bombings had become frequent," she said.

Another Western reporter, freelancer Yasmine Ryan, said that despite being treated more leniently than local women reporters, sexism and anxiety over the appearance of the Islamic State in Libya caused her to feel increasingly uncomfortable. Ryan said she is acutely aware of the strategy of ISIS and affiliated groups to employ sex trafficking as a means of "legitimizing women as commodities," which she said has further reduced the presence of female reporters along Libya's eastern and central coast. Ryan still occasionally reports from Libya, when security permits her to do so with relative safety, and she can get a journalist visa.

Rana Jawad, BBC's longtime chief Libya correspondent, also went into temporary hiding following the 2011 uprising, but later resumed reporting and wrote a book, Tripoli Witness, a first-hand account of her experiences. Today she covers Libya from Tunis.She said her decision to move from Libya was based on concerns about her and her family's safety, particularly given her high profile as a journalist for the BBC.

Alshibani, who has worked for openly partisan media outlets, said she has observed "extreme hostilities" between members of pro-Islamist and anti-Islamist media who feel extraordinary pressure to adhere to their respective allegiances. She also witnessed female journalists and presenters being coerced into "picking a side in order to continue being employed." Pressure to adhere to conventions is often implicitly gender-based, she said, and of the 40 or so TV channels and more than 100 publications launched in Libya since 2011, "I know of only one other woman in a decision-making role," she said. With a laugh, she added, "Most Libyan men are simply not used to taking orders from women."

Such views of gender are not unique to Libya, but tend to be amplified by the ongoing cultural and political conflict. And in many cases, the conflict has followed women journalists who resorted to self-imposed exile. Alshibani first moved to Tunis, hoping to continue reporting from a relatively safe place and return to Libya when security permitted. Yet even in Tunisia, she was mindful that she could be targeted by operatives representing a Libyan faction, particularly after she heard that a Libyan militia member had been asking around for her contact information. That episode prompted her to move to Malta.

Though Alshibani said she received "veiled" threats, others, including reporter Manal Bouseifi, said they were threatened directly. Bouseifi said she fled her Libyan home after receiving death threats over her "provocative reporting" about the need to re-interpret the Hadith, the foundation of Islamic laws.

Bouseifi studied journalism in Libya during the Qaddafi era and began working as an investigative reporter for a Libyan state publication in 2004. Two years later, she said, "I worked on an investigative report on prostitution with a female colleague and we discovered that it was widespread and with many human rights violations. But the story led to backlash against us as women reporting on the topic."

After Qaddafi's fall, "I wrote an article in 2012 about inheritance laws, as I wanted to initiate a discussion on rights of women in political transition and this was the most controversial writing," Bouseifi said. "I quickly discovered that the inheritance law discussion could have led to a slitting of my throat. I am a mother of five children. Four of them are alive. I fled with them." Yet the threats, she said, followed her to Tunis. In September 2015, Bouseifi said she was attacked by a Libyan man on a street who threw coffee in her face. "He said it would not be coffee next time," she added.

The Libyan women journalists who have relocated to Tunis are part of a larger exodus from Libya owing to Tunisia's geographic proximity and lack of visa restrictions. Nearly one million Libyans have fled to Tunis alone since 2011, according to the Tunisian Ministry of Information. Yet Tunisia is not without its problems, including high unemployment, political division, and a tempestuous history with Libya. Bouseifi said she now has plans to relocate to Egypt and to start a human rights publication focused on the women of Libya. She currently manages a group of women inside the country who have been documenting human rights abuses in Libyan prisons and translating reports such as those by Human Rights Watch to Arabic for Libyan readers. The women use pseudonyms to protect their identities, she said.

Some Libyan women journalists have chosen to remain in their native country, despite the dangers. Among those going against the grain is a reporter who uses the pen name Mariam Ahmed, who has reported for the Libya Herald and freelanced for foreign media from her home in Benghazi until October 2015, when she went on hiatus from reporting on "daily death and destruction" because she said the work became too distressing.

Ahmed, who is 22, said she was undaunted by the potential conflict of being a female journalist in a largely conservative community, and has managed to make many high-profile contacts, including among various militias. She said she realizes this makes her something of an anomaly. "The assassinations of 2013 have been replaced by face-to-face battles, and the violence is nonstop," she said. "Women hardly drive anymore, let alone walk on the streets." Because she is often the only female present during tense events, Ahmed is well known, which makes her more visible and, she acknowledged, more vulnerable to attacks. Yet her family supports her work, including her father, who sends her breaking news alerts and helps her find useful sources. "My baba [father] told me that if death is to happen, it will happen no matter what, but that I should not live my life in fear," she said.

Like Alshibani, Ahmed felt an overwhelming desire to document the violence around her. "When I wrote my first story in 2012, on the anniversary of the NATO bombing, I found that I could not stop writing," Ahmed said. "But during this period, given that there are no positive stories, I am frustrated."

Asked if she has ever been threatened, Ahmed said the greatest danger she has faced involved being physically caught in crossfire or falling out with a local leader. She said her personal safety and that of her family members hinge heavily on maintaining discretion, asking the right questions and knowing when to refrain.

Another female journalist who held out longer than most is Tunisian Huda Mzioudet, who said that while in Libya, she was mostly treated with respect and even protectiveness. She attributed this to having been veiled and "culturally familiar, yet an outsider."

But, Mzioudet added, increasing danger led her to report on "less adrenaline-driven" stories. Avoiding battle-riddled streets, Mzioudet covered stories on migration, which also required travel to potentially dangerous, remote locations. She remembered one such trip in which a local tribal member who was escorting her through Libya's Sahara Desert region began playing Egyptian love songs on his vehicle's CD player. Sensing that he was coming on to her, "I had to ask myself, what in the world I was doing there with absolutely no protection,"she said. Back home in Tunis, she is working on a book chronicling her reporting experiences in Libya for the Brookings Institution.

The sense of gender-based vulnerability, which Mzioudet also experienced while negotiating Tunisia-Libya border crossings, caused her to reevaluate her on-the-ground reporting, she said. During one border crossing, a member of a Libyan militia asked what she was doing in Libya. She lied and told him she was an academic training students, fearing his reaction if he found out she was a journalist. She recalled how her heart raced when his inquiry began to include sexual innuendo and he suggested that she should be spending time "training him in certain acts," as she put it. "I was practically in the middle of nowhere," she said. "As a Tunisian national, I would not count on my government protecting me," she added.

Despite being conspicuous in a male-dominated terrain, many women journalists, both Libyan and non-Libyan, have continued to report on the country, whether from afar, while making periodic forays into Libya, or from within the country itself. Bouseifi noted that her college-age daughter is determined to return to Libya as a journalist and hopes to report in Arabic and English. "It is not an option for her right now, but yes, in the future, when we return," she said. "Insh'allah."

Preethi Nallu is a freelance journalist based in Tunis.

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