It’s too dangerous to report regularly from inside the country.
By Jared Malsin, CJR
The crisis in Libya seized world media attention again this month after self-declared Islamic State militants released a video showing the execution of 21 hostages, including at least 20 Coptic Egyptians. Airstrikes in Libya by Egyptian, Libyan, and United Arab Emirates jets, as well as dire pronouncements by European officials added to a heightening sense of crisis.
The execution and airstrikes underscored a serious problem facing the media: how to reliably report news from a country where a complex armed conflict has made several important locations off-limits to outsiders.
The eastern Libyan city of Derna is a key example of this information problem. Fighters in the city were among the first to declare their allegiance to ISIS last year. Derna is also where Egyptian jets struck last Monday, even though the lead executioner in the graphic IS video claimed the killings took place in “Trabulous,” a reference to Tripoli, on Libya’s western shores.
In the wake of the airstrikes, media scrambled to report the outcome on the ground. Libya’s western-backed government claimed that 64 alleged IS militants were killed. On social media, pictures showed civilian casualties and damaged residential buildings. A Derna resident told the Wall Street Journal that four civilians died. Human Rights Watch reported the names of six civilians allegedly killed in the bombing.
The difficulty facing journalists is that Derna is a city home to IS-linked fighters, with institutions in disarray and no functioning judiciary. Residents of the city are hesitant to speak openly on the phone.
“Those that actually remain in Derna are under a hell of a lot of pressure from their families and from the situation in general. So getting information out of there is extremely difficult,” said Hanan Salah, Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s not just us; the UN and everyone else is having problems getting info out,” she said.
Derna is just one piece of a complex and shifting situation on the ground in Libya. The country is fractured between two rival governments and a range of local armed groups of varying sizes and political inclinations. Security chaos, airport and border closures, and political polarization all make it difficult and dangerous for local and foreign journalists to operate.
Between mid-2012 and November 2014, at least 91 attacks and threats against journalists took place in Libya, including 30 kidnappings and detentions and eight killings, according to Human Rights Watch.
“This is a very dangerous time to be a journalist in Libya,” said Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director in a recent report on the issue. “Too many journalists in post-Qaddafi Libya face a situation where saying what you think can get you killed.”
Local journalists face threats and violence. The small corps of international journalists covering Libya now often do so from Tunisia and Egypt, occasionally making short trips.
The dangers of reporting there, and massive crises elsewhere in the region, mean that Libya has been overshadowed in the international press since the demise of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, with the possible exception of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in September 2012.
Even in Benghazi, crucible of the uprising against Qaddafi and a crucial center of Libyan politics, international reporting from the city had become “rare” according to Irish journalist Mary Fitzgerald, who has reported from Libya over the past year.
Even the emergence of groups swearing allegiance to ISIS did not initially capture international attention. At least three local groups loyal to ISIS exist in Libya. “ISIS is literally taking over #Libya day by day and world just isn’t paying attention,” said Financial Times correspondent Borzou Daragahi in a tweet two days before the release of the kidnapping video.
The murder of the Egyptian christians in a video narrated in English and Egypt’s subsequent airstrikes meant that Libya came “slouching back into the headlines,” in Fitzgerald’s words. But the emergence of ISIS in the country is just one symptom of institutional implosion, political turmoil, and armed conflict. It’s a complex story and a hard one to report, but in terms of the political and human toll, an essential one.
Jared Malsin is a freelance journalist based in Cairo