North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Why we need better stories about Libya

International media has failed to explain the complexities of the conflict, or reflect the resilience of ordinary Libyans

Tim Molyneux
19 July 2021, 7.58am
There are other stories to be told that do not make the headlines. Tripoli, Libya, July 5, 2021
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Hazem Ahmed / REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Ten years on from Libya’s uprising and descent into civil war, there are many reasons why the global media fails to tell a more holistic story. Accessing the country is difficult, the situation is fast-moving and complex, local media has been deeply compromised and independent voices have been stifled. Perhaps for all these reasons, media outlets are rarely willing to dedicate the resources needed to dive deeper.

The result is coverage that poorly serves those seeking to understand the drivers and impacts of the conflict, and a lack of focus on the human rights violations faced by ordinary people living through it.

To counteract the simplistic narratives, we must start telling the human stories, but it is not easy.

Libya made international news in March, when a new interim Government of National Unity took power with a mandate to lead the country towards national elections in December. Looking back on international media coverage of the country over the last decade, it is easy to see why the elation many felt as the country emerged from decades of dictatorship in 2011 has given way to deepening frustration. The latest power plays by a narrow cast of strongmen and their foreign backers dominate the headlines, as if ordinary Libyans are mere spectators in some larger geo-political drama.

Most international correspondents have long since left Libya and access to the country has become much more restricted. Obtaining visas is difficult, local travel is subject to the whim of officials in a confusing, fragmented bureaucracy and transport infrastructure is limited. Short-term visits have become less viable, and in any case, make it harder to build relationships with local sources.

At the same time, the conflict has become more convoluted. In the early days of the uprising, foreign correspondents amplified the voices of ordinary Libyans eager to overthrow Gaddafi and build a better future. This was an appealing narrative for a global audience early in the Arab Spring.

Over a third of Libyans “do not trust any media sources at all,” and have become less open to talking to reporters

However, as Libya’s opposition movement fractured and the country descended into civil war, any sense of unity quickly evaporated. As armed groups and militias proliferated, so did local power struggles linked to political affiliation, geography, religion, historic grievances, prejudice and of course, money. Keeping track of who is fighting whom and why is far from straightforward.

One war too many

One of the effects has been the hyper-polarisation of the domestic media environment, making it hard for international observers to separate fact from fiction in the absence of reliable local reporting. Officials and militia leaders pressure reporters to align with them, while disinformation and hate speech are used by all sides as weapons to fight the war.

By some estimates over a third of Libyans “do not trust any media sources at all,” and have become less open to talking to reporters, as Ulf Laessing, a journalist and author who has covered Libya since 2011, experienced first-hand: “In 2013-14 people were still curious and more open to talking to us, the conflict hadn’t settled in so much and there were still some independent voices, but hardly anyone wants to talk any more.”

Perhaps because of these factors, there is a lack of editorial will at the international level to engage with Libya in much depth. Articles rarely go beyond a summary of the latest violence or geo-political maneuverings, with the inevitable boilerplate language reminding us of the country’s division between rival administrations and renegade warlords.

But this is only part of the story. “Reporting is very macro level, it does not speak to Libyans,” says activist and researcher Asma Khalifa. “There is nothing about Libyan resilience. There is a problem with how this conflict is being portrayed. We are very much invisible, unless we’re doing something really bad.”

Given the multiple wars engulfing the region, this may be a case of ‘conflict fatigue’. Yemen is regularly reported to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, while the Assad regime’s extreme brutality in Syria has shocked audiences worldwide. As Libyan analyst Tarek Megerisi points out, by contrast “when Libya is discussed, it’s always a security thing. It’s either something for military experts who get to analyse the latest weapon being used, or the political analysts who think the whole world is a chess board. The human side never comes out. It’s like Libya is one Arab conflict too many."

As we mark the 10-year anniversary of the Libyan uprising, it is about time to focus on the human story

Amid a significant reduction in hostilities in Libya, there may be an opportunity to turn the tide. At the national level, following UN-led talks in Tunis in November 2020, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum produced a roadmap towards national elections for a national unity government in December 2021. The roadmap contains six priority issues for Libya’s interim executive authorities to address, including the "rehabilitation and regulating of the media sector in a manner that preserves the national social fabric and creates general de-escalation.” International media organisations and donors should support efforts to build a more robust independent media sector and call for attacks against media workers to be investigated and the perpetrators held accountable.

The human story

At the same time, there are other stories to be told that do not make the headlines. Despite the toxic nature of public debate, a vibrant civil society has flourished, and a growing cultural sector is helping Libya come to terms with its troubled past. Activists are working to build an inclusive, just and sustainable future, amplifying the voices of marginalised groups including women, youth and ethnic minorities. Amid the damage inflicted by the fighting, communities are returning to their homes and rebuilding.

Instead of allowing a handful of military and political leaders with questionable legitimacy to dominate the agenda, highlighting these efforts would frame the Libyan story in terms of what diverse communities across the country really care about and need from the international community. Instead of focusing only on how the war is fought, looking beyond the frontlines would help shed light on what alternative visions for peace might look like.

A good place for international media organisations to start would be the civil society networks that are at the forefront of dealing with these issues, and centering stories around them. As we mark the 10-year anniversary of the Libyan uprising, it is about time to focus on the human story.

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