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Libya: A New El Dorado? Not for its Media

Tripoli, LIBYA—Libyan borders are now open and foreign investments are quickly pouring into this oil-rich north-African country. Since the embargo was lifted almost two years ago, pipelines are being extended and new businesses are being set up every day. 

It would be nice to think that such a rapid economic opening in a country that has been closed to the world for over 20 years might pave the way for an equally rapid transformation of the country's political culture. But judging by the current condition of Libyan national television, which reflects the country’s static political environment, Libya has yet to take part in the media revolution which has engulfed other Middle Eastern countries in the last 10 years. 

Libya's state-owned television channel—Jamahiriya, which is also the official name of the country's form of government, "the State of the Masses"—is a sad and, at times, surreal expression of the country's social and political stasis. The channel has undergone some changes in the past year, both in content and look, and now is also available via satellite, but like the Libyan state it serves, the channel remains a sealed universe, broadcasting only government-sponsored information.

Is it just a matter of more time and money before Libya too will be able to produce its own quality television or newspapers, and teach its journalists how to ask questions? Or must we wait for a radical shift in the country's political culture before its media can change? 

Few people outside Libya have had a chance to take a look at this channel, so a quick overview of Jamahiriya's contents is in order. Like most state-owned channels, Jamahiriya aims to be both a news and entertainment channel, though to an objective observer it is neither newsworthy nor entertaining. 

Its “entertainment” consists of morning readings from the Quran, some broadcasted lectures and seminars, a few talk-shows (mainly on health and social problems), some soccer matches of the local teams and occasionally locally-produced family dramas (or comedies, depending on whether one finds them tragic disasters or actually funny). There is also an abundance of traditional Libyan music, either in the form of televised concerts or recordings broadcasted on a backdrop of rolling desert landscapes. Sometimes speeches of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi are re-broadcasted. 

As for its news content, Jamahiriya airs four daily news broadcasts in Arabic, one in French, and one in English. Each of these varies in length from 30 minutes to 90 minutes, depending on the importance of the daily activities of the qa’id al-thawra, or leader of the Revolution, as Qadhafi is known. During his publicly celebrated visit to Senegal at the beginning of April, for example, almost one hour each of of the six daily broadcasts was dedicated to his trip. Pan-Africanism is at the center of Qadhafi's international diplomacy, so lengthy coverage of his trip to Dakar, though at times excessive, ought not to surprise: arrival at the airport, 20 minutes; crowds cheering at his motorcade passing through Dakar, 15 minutes; his speech at the city stadium, 20 minutes. The Senegal-trip report was followed by 15 minutes of domestic news, mainly the People's Council's deliberations on the new foreign investment law, and another 15 minutes of international news, which included a detailed report of the day's casualties in Iraq, and the latest violence perpetuated by the so-called "Zionist Terrorist Army", as Israel's Defense Force is referred to in Libya. 

Every one of the six news broadcasts of the day is preceded by a two-minute reading of the Green Book, Qadhafi's political manifesto. Putting aside any judgment on their actual content, these daily political readings, broadcast in Arabic, as well as their English and French translations, are a particularly surreal moment on Jamahiriya. With the television showing a static image of the earth on a dark background, as if in a sci-fi movie, a metallic voice emerges from this intergalactic darkness and slowly starts to read: “Popular congresses are the only means to achieve popular democracy. Any system of government other than popular congresses is undemocratic," the voice proclaimed on an April evening. "All the prevailing systems of government in the world today are undemocratic, unless they adopt this method. Popular congresses are the end of the journey of the masses’ movement in its quest for democracy.” 

It cannot be denied, however, that some noticeable improvements have taken place on Jamahiriya over the last year. Compared to the news that was being broadcasted in March 2005, before it became a satellite channel, Jamahiriya today offers good wire coverage of international news and gives more space to international events. Even the weather forecast now spans from Caracas to Australia. When possible, they try to match the footage with the actual length of the dispatches being read and occasionally they even quote their sources. Another addition is Western-style electronic music, echoing the 1980s hit "Gloria," used to introduce news briefs. The channel also boasts a new modern news studio and, most importantly, is able to show live feeds. 

The most surprising change of in Jamahiriya's transmissions is the new attention devoted to the US, which had for years demonized Libya as a rogue state sponsoring global terrorism, but has now become Libya's closest Western ally. News briefs about the US, however minute or random, now have a daily space. On one day in April, the following items were reported: a devastating storm in the Missouri area, a plane crash in Delaware and electricity shortage in Washington, DC. Such headlines reflect the shift in US-Libyan relations since June 2004 when Libya agreed to disclose its nuclear program. Jamahiriya appears to be serving national interests in trying to close the gap that divided the two countries for over 20 years. This shift was best exemplified by Jamahiriya’s lengthy coverage of a conference on Libyan-US relations organized at New York's Columbia University. The March 23 “Prospects for Democracy” conference, featuring Qadhafi's participation through a one-hour live video feed, ranked amongst the top stories of the day on Jamahiriya. 

No such attention is awarded to other Middle Eastern states or Europe. Qadhafi's disdain towards other Arab heads of state is reflected on Jamahiriya, which hardly mentions other Arab leaders or politics. Europe plays secondary role, and is mainly mentioned in news items concerning strikes (especially France and Italy) or bad weather (central Europe). 

At the moment, Jamahiriya is Libya’s only channel, but it is certainly not the only channel available to Libyans. Satellite dishes, which now can be bought in Tripoli for approximately $100, blanket most rooftops. As the head of a Libyan charity organization put it: "If you don't have a satellite dish in Libya, you are absolutely nobody." Her charity, which assists 250 poor families, considers donating a TV and a satellite dish as a basic necessity, which precedes even the purchase of fridges or foodstuff. 

Imad, a 51-year-old Libyan businessman lobbying for US companies in the Jamahiriya who preferred not to give his full name, compared Libya’s national television to medicine. “Nobody likes taking medicines, but in some cases one just has to take in those bitter pills,” he said. “We have to watch Jamahiriya to know what is happening here. There is no other way to get news about the country.” 

With the exception of major bilateral meetings between Qadhafi and foreign leaders and occasional in-depth reports on the state of the country, Libya comes up relatively infrequently on other major Arab satellite channels. One such exception, which quickly became the talk of the town in Tripoli, came up last year when a major Arab channel broadcasted a two-hour documentary on social discontent among Libyans. One month later, another channel presented a documentary on Tripoli’s Sufi brotherhoods, whose doors have been closed to non-adepts, let alone cameras, for over 20 years. Libya, like most of its North African neighbors, was historically rife with Muslim brotherhoods, but since the imposition of Qadhafi’s government-sponsored form of Islam, which censures mystical sects, they have gone underground. 

“How did they get the permission to film these things?” Libyans asked themselves. But the question remained largely unanswered after these programs were aired. Foreign journalists on assignment in Libya are, in fact, always escorted by an undercover police officer, who more often than not prevents reporters from going to certain neighborhoods or meeting people whom the government might deem politically unsafe.

Imad represents the generation of older and educated Libyans who are conscious of the shortcomings of Libya's state-owned channel and who wish it would resemble other Arabic news channels, such as Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya. “On other channels you can hear a variety of opinions and debates get heated. On Jamahiriya there is no opinion whatsoever, let alone debates,” Imad said.

The few talk-shows that do take place on Jamahiriya look more like sequences of long monologues than actual talk-shows. During such programs, four or five guests are invited to sit around a table, and one by one they deliver their speeches. The journalist simply passes the microphone from one person to the other, and never even attempts to critique or question the speaker. 

Likewise, the news programs on Jamahiriya simply chronicle of facts, without any analysis whatsoever. At best, the reporter reads the news story released by the national news agency, Jana, but at times, not even that. It is not uncommon for the Libyan state channel to broadcast endless minutes of straight footage, without any editing or cutting, and without any voiceover. The images are accompanied only by the background sounds of the film itself. If it is footage of Qaddhafi’s trips abroad, for example, the viewer sees the Libyan leader shaking hands with local authorities, while listening to the sounds of footsteps, occasional cheers of the crowd (“Qad-dha-fi! Qad-dha-fi!”), the national anthem played by a brass band, and the sound of police cars whizzing away. Such silent broadcasts can last up to 20 minutes, and in the worst cases, voiceless news images might be looped twice. 

During the two-foreign language news programs, which are directed primarily at the immigrant communities from Libya's African neighbors who now constitute almost a quarter of the country’s population, the footage itself is never translated, not even when Qadhafi’s speeches are aired. Only the few introductory sentences of the news dispatches are read in the foreign languages. The rest of the footage remains in its original form. 

When looking at such footage, some viewers might recognize the infant state of TV journalism that characterized most state-owned Arab TV channels during the 1980s. They might be also tempted to believe that it will be only a matter of time and investment before Libya catches up with other Arab media corporations. In Libya's case, however, the problem is not only that the channel appears to be stuck in the early stages television journalism development. The reality is that news—whether in its printed or broadcasted form—plays a very limited role in this country as we know it now. 

Apart from Jamahiriya TV channel and its national news agency, Libya has only one radio station and four very thin state-owned newspapers. The only privately owned Arabic-language newspaper allowed to cross into Libyan borders is the London-based Al Arab. There is no circulation whatsoever of the other well-known Arabic press, let alone foreign-language ones. The main political opposition Web site, UK-based www.libya-watanona.com, and the opposition radio, Sawt Libya, are censored inside the country. 

It is possible to interpret the absence of printed news and Jamahiriya's silent, anchorless broadcasts as the media's embodiment of Qadhafi’s philosophy of "direct democracy." In the same way as there is no need for parliamentary representatives to have political participation, and no Muslim learned scholar to interpret Islam, maybe the qaid al-thawra also believes that there is no need for journalists to interpret the news. Dispatches can be presented in their rawest form so that the people themselves can make up their own opinions. If there are issues to be discussed, Qadhafi claims, these ought to be addressed at the “people's congresses,” which he considers "better forums than a newspaper."

The result is that total absence of news culture in a country that Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth described as "a closed and tightly controlled society." In an op-ed published in January in the International Herald Tribune, Roth stated: "There is no independent press or civil society, and there are no political groups that are not officially sanctioned." On pain of imprisonment, Libyans are not allowed to criticize the government, its political system, or its leader.

The younger generation of Libyans don't watch Jamahiriya at all, not even to get the basic national news, nor do they read the country's newspapers. Born after Qadhafi's 1969 revolution, they studied in the country's revolutionary schools, and now they are not interested in the country's politics. They just watch TV for entertainment. 

Walking along the busy streets of Tripoli’s commercial district around Sharia Awwal September, and peeping in several shops and cafes, one notices that most of those 30-year old Libyans shop-owners, with gelled hair and tight jeans, spend their time watching US movies with Arabic subtitles or music channels showing the latest video-clip of a sexy Lebanese star. 

Ahmad, a 20-year-old receptionist in a budget hotel in Tripoli's medina, spends most of his hot and lazy days watching movies with Arabic subtitles, and never switches to Jamahiriya. “It is sooooo boring!” he stated emphatically.

Ahmad is not alone in criticizing the state of the country's media. Qadhafi's own son Sif al-Islam Qadhafi, who is often quoted as being a critic of Libyan newspapers which "nobody reads," has repeatedly called for "freeing the media from the stranglehold of the state." His father has recently appointed Sif al-Islam to lead a new company, called "1/9" in reference to Qadhafi's September 1, 1969 revolution. According to an AFP report, the new company aims at opening Libyan media to private ownership and will oversee the creation of a radio station, a private satellite TV channel, and a printing facility. 

Could this be the beginning of Libya's media rebirth? If such reports are confirmed and these projects actually do take place, are we looking at the end of a 30-year state control of the media? In the end, this project might provide more space for Libyan entertainment programs, which is what the younger generation is interested in. But given the current political climate and culture, it would be very surprising to see uncensored information flooding the country in the near future. As of April 2006, in Tripoli, things haven't changed politically, despite the influx of tourists and foreign investments. Those who want to know what is happening here continue to watch the silent footage of Jamahiriya news. If TV is any indicator, it could be a long, boring wait for reform.

About Claudia Gazzini

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