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
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
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.
Gazzini is a doctoral student in Middle Eastern History
at St. John’s College, Oxford. Her research, which often
takes her to Tripoli, focuses on twentieth-century Lybia. She
graduated from Roma III University, and received her M.A. in
Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University. Originally Italian
but raised in Indonesia, Claudia has worked for Reuters and
the Associated Press in Indonesia, Italy and the Middle East.