Envisioning Libya's Media Future

Dec 282011

ICFJ President Joyce Barnathan was one of three experts at a conference on the media for Libya’s National Transitional Council, run by Northwestern University’s campus in Doha. She discussed best practices in journalism training and education at the gathering called: “Media Vision for Libya: A Good Offices Conference.” In this Q&A, Barnathan describes the event and its outcomes.

ICFJ President Joyce Barnathan addresses conference attendees

What was the mood of the event?

Very inspiring. The participants were Libyan revolutionaries, who wanted to create a free and open media system in their country. They suffered under Gaddafi in a country without a free media for 41 years. They were so open to new ideas and they were very excited about advancing freedom of expression.

What was the goal of the conference?

We were not there to tell them what to do, but instead to put different options on the table and help advise on the huge challenges ahead.

What is the state of the media in Libya?

There was no semblance of a free media during the previous regime. Now there is the former state-run media and free skilled journalists.

Aside from the legacy media, there has been a huge proliferation of newspapers and websites. Many are clearly not sustainable, and some have collapsed. As Northwestern University in Qatar’s Dean Everette Dennis pointed out, Libyans are starting almost from scratch, but they also have a tremendous opportunity to leapfrog technology and build modern news systems much more easily.

What are some of the immediate concerns in Libyan journalism?

Right now, Libya is run by a transitional government, but there will be elections within the year. One of the key goals is to make sure journalists can report accurately on the elections. Many of the participants wanted training in election coverage. You can imagine that there probably are Gaddafi stalwarts in the old media organizations—so it’s a challenge to create a free and open media without political divides and tensions.

What other key points emerged?

The participants endorse six principles and seven recommendations. There was an awareness about the dangers of defining—and hence restricting—journalism. But there were also thoughtful discussions on balancing freedom of expression with the right to privacy and respect for religious beliefs. The group seems comfortable with turning the state-run regulator into an independent body that focuses on rules and infrastructure that set the stage for a vibrant media. And all of the experts made it clear that the media of the future had to be Libya’s own creation—and not an ill-fitting import.

Were you optimistic about the future?

I came away very upbeat because the people were so committed. Libyans will soon elect their representatives, but in the meantime, the transitional leadership wants to put in place principles that will help guide the future of the media. These principles are a strong foundation for building a free press in a country that was so oppressed not too long ago. I think that’s great.