19th February 2019
By Tom Law

Libyan journalists call for new legislation to defend independent journalism

Libyan journalists have called for new legislation to defend independent journalism and freedom of expression in their deeply divided country.

Leading broadcasters, journalists and delegates from journalism schools were among those who heard from Pierre Francois Docquir, of Article 19 and Chris Elliott, the director of the EJN during two days of debate in Tunis on the weekend of 9 and 10 February.

Since the death of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 the country has fractured and since 2014 the BBC describes it as being “divided into competing political and military factions based in Tripoli and the east.”

There is no strong central authority to defend journalists and journalism in a country where journalists are regularly threatened, abducted and sometimes killed.

Last month the Committee to Protect Journalists reported the death of freelancer Mohamed Ben Khalifa. Khalifa, a photographer who contributed to outlets including The Associated Press, was killed during clashes south of Tripoli on January 19, according to news reports, local press organizations and the United Nations Support Mission in Libya.

Elliott emphasised the importance of self-regulation of the media as a guarantor of freedom of expression. He underlined one of the central messages of the EJN that journalists hate admitting that they are wrong but once they have accepted the independent process of settling a complaint by a viewer, reader or listener it helps them in their work and builds trust.

“All this grows the readers’ respect for the news organisation and gives governments less of an opportunity to interfere, to paint a picture of a media landscape out of control that “needs tough new laws” to bring it into line,” said Elliott.

The conference was organised by the Libyan Center for the Freedom of the Press, supported the Copenhagen based media development organisation, International Media Support.

The problems facing the media in a divided country were underlined when some media representatives from the east of Libya pulled out at the last minute.

A Libyan media consultant told the meeting that Libyan journalist and media professionals have tried to work on a code of ethics. The initiative was intended to be binding on all stakeholders but “when you go out into the real world the problem is one of implementation.”

A Libyan academic told the meeting that corruption is rife in Libyan media which undermines efforts to encourage ethical conduct.

Another academic said that until the conflict in Libya that resulted in the ouster of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, some individual journalists had tried to act ethically but there was no wider acceptance and understanding that ethics were intrinsic to the profession of journalism.

However, after the process to form a new government began in October 2011, he said “the reality changed” meaning that journalism trainers “had to reconsider the entire curriculum” and there was a very deep feeling that ethics should be given greater prominence.

There were, however, according to the professor, a number of obstacles in terms of practices and mindset. He added that while there was talk of charters [for a code of ethics] it’s part of the inner consciousness and it’s about knowledge. He said there was no deterrent if codes are violated or breached “there are no sanctions”.

The professor went on to argue that there should be a body that monitors and regulates the institutions and individuals in terms of journalistic ethics.

Among the recommendations was a call for a national public consultation as a precursor to getting the widest possible buy-in from the Libyan readership (public) for an independent media authority.

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Note: This article was amended on 25th February 2019.