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 feeds.
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
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,”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.