Facilitating full freedom of expression in the media after decades of authoritarian rule is an arduous task. We talked to Everette E. Dennis, Dean of Northwestern University in Qatar, who chaired the "Media Vision for Libya: A Good Offices Conference" in Doha last year.
Your Middle East: What are the main challenges when it comes to building an independent media landscape in Libya?
Everette Dennis: The main challenges for Libya are certainly the lack of institutions and infrastructure for freedom of expression, a media system and independent media. They were virtually starting from scratch after 40 years of the former regime. Lack of governing structure, including necessary electronic and digital media regulation, experience with economic models, technology framework and infrastructure and, of course, a modern educated and trained media work force as well as leadership. Both some great deficits and one of the most exciting opportunities for any country in modern times.
YME: Describe the development of the media landscape in Libya in recent months.
ED: In recent months, there has been little development in creating a working media system since the transitional government was not empowered to develop a constitution and thus wait for the parliament and new leadership, but new media outlets have arisen and there appears to be movement toward more private ownership and more diverse content. I am told that there are efforts of considerable quality and some with more sensational purposes, which is frequently the case in post-revolutionary emerging governments and media systems. Efforts to advance journalistic training have taken place, mostly led by international NGOs. Of course, in the days after the fall of the old regime, there was a flurry of new newspapers and other media outlets. Libya's online and digital efforts are hampered by quite limited Internet penetration and access.
YME: Have the parliamentary elections had any effect on the Libyan media?
ED: I am told that to date media issues have not been given high priority since the election of the parliament and the election of a new president. That will hopefully change, though internal advocates are clearly needed.
YME: What do you judge to be plausible developments in the future?
ED: Plausible developments in the future will depend on the will and wherewithal of Libyan society to enshrine media freedom in their new constitution and to work out a practical plan. Clearly freedom of speech and media were deeply held values by the revolutionaries, especially in contrast to the kind of authoritarian control that existed for so long. As with all new democratic or quasi-democratic states overcoming the natural propensity to want to control the means of communication will take resolution and courage. Welcoming criticism is always hard for any regime, but that's what media freedom is sometimes all about.
Libya will likely want to create its own unique system and style. There has been talk of private TV stations and some public service media, possibly like the BBC model, which would properly represent the people. The mix of new media including newspapers and recast old titles will be of paramount importance. Radio is also very much in play and is more important than many people think. Technical infrastructure will be key to developing broadcasting and broadband systems. Another issue will be guarding against wholesale takeover of local media by foreign interests, which has happened often in other emerging democracies, notably in Eastern and Central Europe after the fall of Communism. There are many forces in play in Libya that need to be accommodated, but getting the constitutional guarantees and a system of independent judicial review in place are essential steps, however they play out. Essentially, Libya has a rare chance for a country to define its communication needs and system – and they have the resources to do so. In the best of cases, Libya could end up teaching other nations, including those in the West, how to achieve freedom of expression and independent media. Whether that will happen, only time will tell.
YME: Finally, what are the most exciting changes taking place today when it comes to media in the MENA region in general?
ED: This is a great time for media development in the MENA region with the rise of media cities and the great promise of digital media of all kinds. There is a demand for rigorously gathered information, opinion media and entertainment programming as well. Prospects for the film industry are good. In some places the possibility of knowledge-based industries developing to supplement and ultimately complement extractive industries is very much on the agenda. The possibilities of media investments across the region are also good. There is better and better media and marketing research that will help track media uses and needs, so the future could be very bright indeed. Whether it will be depends on a commitment to change and finding the right structure and channels to properly represent and deliver communication services in harmony with the key social constituencies including government, religion, other social institutions such as education (and even sport) along with what could be an emerging civil society.