Taking to the Airwaves
Many have described the Arab Spring as the Facebook or Twitter revolution, but barely five per cent of Libyans have access to an Internet connection. What nearly all Libyans have access to is television and it’s here that the most important part of the future media of the country is forming.
Everyone watches television in Libya, satellite dishes litter the Tripoli skyline, piping in channels from all over the Arab world, and beyond, into their homes. Men gather in groups smoking shisha and drinking cups of bitter coffee in front of football games or the latest news headlines in their local café.
Qadhafi sponsored channels used to abound and during the revolution locals say that forces loyal to the regime would send vehicles round to jam the frequencies of channels such al Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia, who were reporting the revolution. Still today pro-Qadhafi channels are broadcasting defiant messages from Syrian soil.
New channels, new opportunities
As Libya shed its heavy state censorship there was a heady realisation of the new possibilities. “All of a sudden the cuffs were taken away and people started dancing in the street, drawing on the walls, writing, and appearing on the front of TVs”, says Nadima an employee at the new television channel Libya Alhurra.
The channel, literally ‘Free Libya’, stands in a smart modern glass-fronted building in the centre of Tripoli. It was previously the home of a pro-Qadhafi channel, but now the red, green and black flag of the new Libya flutters next to the massive satellite dish on the roof, broadcasting twenty-four hour programming into the homes of Libya.
The studios at Libya Alhurra are an impressively modern operation, the wall of the control room is littered with flat screens and the modern set, on which a discussion show is underway, is lit with beams of blue light. Sara, a young presenter in blue jeans and a headscarf, hosts the show being recorded. The programme she is presenting is called ‘Pride of the Sea’ and discusses the effects on the lives of the people that took part in the revolution that has swept Libya.
Freedom of Expression
When Sara compares her current role to before the revolution the difference is marked. “I didn’t feel like I was expressing myself or expressing the thoughts of the people and their needs”, she says. “I was just reading the transcript that was written, it served their (the regime’s) benefit. Now, I talk on behalf of the people and on behalf of the loyalist of the 17th February revolution, because we have the same way of thinking.”
Some of the employees are new, but many worked in the media under the old regime and haven’t forgotten the oppressive conditions they worked under. “You know when we are working with Qadhafi, sometimes we are afraid (for) ourselves,” says Omar an executive director at the channel. “You think when you make a mistake, a technical mistake, microphone failure, camera stops working, everything technical, they are thinking that you are against Qadhafi.”
For a country and people so new to democracy they are eager to embrace the press freedoms that promise to change their lives so much. “Libya Alhurra means that anyone with a point of view can say whatever they like, in a completely free way”, says Nadima.
Libyan politics will shortly go through some of its largest ever changes, as a transitional government is formed and works towards a promised first democratic election in over fifty years. New channels like Libya Alhurra will be vital in providing the coverage and informing the people of the events unfolding in their country.
“We hope, our target is to be like the BBC,” says Omar, “we’ll be a national TV station, it is not with the government, will never be under the umbrella of the government. We are a national TV station, this is our plan.” Whether this wish for balance would extend to offering criticism of some of the excesses of the National Transitional Council forces is unclear, but the sentiment is certainly a positive one. As the media in Libya find themselves in the brave new world of pluralism and democracy they’ll need to find their feet fast in order to keep up.