Publication Date: 
Thu, 2011-06-09 01:13

Before the revolution, the press was tightly controlled. In its 2010 press freedom index, Reporters Without Borders put Libya at 160th position out of 178 states.
It was so controlled and so full of obsequious praise for Muammar Qaddafi that very few Libyans bothered to read it. “I only looked at it for the sports," says Abdul Hamid who now works for a humanitarian relief agency.
The revolution has changed everything. It brought into being a flood of magazines and newspapers — papers like “Al-Jazirah Al-Libiyah”, “Intifada Al-Ahrar”, “Al-Kalima”, “Libya Hurriya” (Free Libya), “Akhbar Al-Aan” and so many others. Libyans are suddenly spoiled for choice.
When she visited Benghazi three weeks ago, EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton expressed “astonishment” at the number of papers and magazines available. It grows with every week that passes. At the end of March there were around just half a dozen new titles. By the beginning of May that had grown to 28. By late May it was 65. Now it is over 80.
They represent an outpouring of four decades of pent-up frustration, disillusionment, rage and contempt for Qaddafi and his family and regime and all it stands for — dictatorship, brutality, squandered wealth and preening vanity. But it is not all. There are plenty of positive articles, full of hope about what Libya could become — democratic, stable, economically successful and well-liked and respected.
All are weeklies — there are no dailies as yet — and almost all are in Arabic, although some such as “Berenice Post” have a small English section. The “Libya Post” is the first all-English publication. Many are run by volunteers based at the Media Center across the street from the city’s burned-out court house. Different publications have grabbed a desk here, an office there. Chaos seems to reign in the building but the papers manage to get out on time.
Quantity is one thing. Quality is another. With journalists ranging from professional to the enthusiastic amateur, it is a mixed bag.
Arguably the best paper is “Al-Kalima.” It is a 16-page broadsheet. Unlike many other new Libya titles, some of which are no more than a mouthpiece for their editors’ views and contain nothing but opinion, it has a balance of news, features, investigative articles and opinion pieces. It looks and feels like a newspaper, as good as many papers anywhere else in the world.
It first hit the newsstands at the beginning of May. The man behind it, Mohamed Elmozogi, has been a journalist and writer all his working life, previously editing cultural, economic and local publications. He was originally involved in one of the first newspapers “Libya 17 February”, named after the date of the anti-Qaddafi uprising, but then decided to set up his own paper. He admits it is tough going. He and a few others bear most of the costs — and it is “very expensive,” he says. There are only four other staff members. But by the end of May, “Al-Kalima” was selling 4,000 copies a week and circulating not just in Benghazi but as far as Tobruk. It even manages to sell in besieged Misrata.
Sitting in the lobby of the Uzu hotel, which has become the main journalists’ hotel in Benghazi, partly because of its relatively reliable Internet connection but also because it is where officials from the TNC and so many others involved in the uprising are often to be found, Elmozogi attracts particular attention. A constant succession of people come up and greet him — foreign journalists, other Libyan newspaper editors and writers, TNC officials and more. He is clearly very highly regarded.
His aim is to go daily, and to have an English-language paper as well. But it costs money — a lot of money, and he does have it at present. But he is determined to get to that point and is looking around for investors.
Does he think all the other publications will survive? He does not speak much English. A colleague, Ibrahim, translates. “No. But for democracy to work we have to have a flourishing, independent press. Otherwise people cannot make informed choices.”
Zuhair Albarasi says the same. He heads the TNC’s Media and Communications Committee. His job is to keep the ever-expanding Libyan media informed about TNC news. He too thinks that Libya must have plenty of papers if democracy is to work.
To that end, he wears another hat. He has been tasked with ensuring that the Libyan media is transparent — but not held accountable by the state. That risks interference, he says. He indicates that Libya may adopt a system similar to that in the UK where the press largely polices itself through a press council.
He too does not think all the new papers will survive. “It’s going to be a matter of money and sales.”
One of the papers that is likely to survive is the English language “Libya Post”. It was set up by Tawfik Mansurey. He, like so many of Libya’s new breed of journalists, had never known Libya without Qaddafi. He was born the year Qaddafi came to power, 1969, in Bournemouth in the UK where his father was studying. His father did not want to return to what Libya had become, so the family then moved to the US, first to Milwaukee then to Austin, Texas. They returned to Libya in 1980s. His father had wanted his children to reconnect with their home and their culture.
Tawfik did not understand a word of Arabic at the time. It was not easy for him. But he managed to graduate from Garyounis University in Benghazi and then went to the UK to train as an English-language teacher. That led to jobs in Japan and Taiwan before returning again to the UK to work in Leeds as a copywriter.
He returned to Libya 10 years ago, following his father’s death, and set up an English-language school. In a country that did not like English or people learning it, unless they were favored by the regime, that marked him out as a threat. He was beaten up and shot at and had to go to Tunisia to be operated on as a result. His brother was arrested as a warning to him. When he returned from hospital in Tunisia he was summoned by the justice department and accused of treason.
In the end though, the accusations were dropped and he was allowed to get on with his teaching. It was the time Libya was re-establishing diplomatic relations with the US and did not want any damaging publicity.
When the revolution came, he was convinced that an English-language paper was needed. Libya was, as he said, “rejoining the world.” The world would want to know what was happening in Libya and English would play an increasingly important role in the country as it developed and progressed.
There is every reason to believe he is right, that one (if not more) English-language papers will flourish in Libya.
But then Arab News, as the main English-language daily in another Arab state, is hardly going to say otherwise.

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