Revolutions are historically great creators of media, as people seek to understand what is happening and express their views on the way forward. But most outlets are not set up with commercial ends in mind. As stability returns, wealthy benefactors often withdraw their funding, commercial considerations force others outlets to close, and the field narrows.
A free media plays a key role in a democracy, so how can Libya ensure a vibrant, commercially successful sector? These were the issues tackled by Professor Robert G. Picard of the Reuters Institute, University of Oxford, in his talk ‘Issues in Media Structure, Ownership, Governance and Finance in Transitional Countries’.
Libya has a relatively small population of around five million people spread over a large area, which creates distribution problems. In addition, high unemployment (particularly in rural areas) and a lack of private capital mean that domestic funding is limited.
The most pressing issue, said Picard, was to provide a short-term legal basis for media by recognizing existing broadcasters and issuing some simple, temporary rules to provide initial stability. Longer-term decisions could then be deferred to the new government, but he did suggest that the government provide incentives to investors in media.
He then tackled the issue of what to do with the existing state-controlled media, listing the advantages and disadvantages of allowing it to continue as is, reorganizing it as public service media, or opting outright privatization. The latter option may seem simplest as it generates income and removes most government control, but Picard pointed out that it then raises questions of ownership and the motives of those in control. Foreign ownership in particular may bring in much needed expertise and capital, but profits are exported and ownership becomes more diffused.
It may be, he said, that different rules would be applied to different sectors of the media. Should media remain fully or partially state owned, Picard looked at a number of models around the world for ensuring proper regulation without interference, such as governing boards.
He summarized with a brief overview of the differing economics of different forms of media, explaining that content creation costs are higher in TV, whereas in print the biggest costs are distribution. He emphasized that advertising income for broadcasters is linked to the size of the audience, which in Libya is very small. Hence major fragmentation of the broadcasting industry would impact on the sustainability of each outlet.
These are important considerations as government policy will steer the direction of the media sector, so the government must decide whether it wants a nationalized or provincial system. Each brings advantages and disadvantages, but it is up to the Libyans to decide.
Currently a single license gives access to print, radio and TV, which it was agreed gives a licensee too much dominance.
There was general agreement that licenses for print and broadcast should be separated, and that existing print outlets should be required to undergo a simple registration process to recognize them. Broadcasting requires more legislation as the spectrum is a limited public resource; therefore it was agreed that no long-term decisions should be taken by the interim government. Short-term licenses would, however, be issued to make broadcasters accountable for their content. There was again debate over the role state media should play in the forthcoming election, with suggestions that a guiding body should be formed to ensure all parties are given access. There was emphasis on radio’s important role in providing a plurality of views, while training for young journalists was suggested so that they are equipped with the skills they need to make the most of this crucial period.
The Chair summarized the session by pointing out that the main issue appeared to be the legitimization of the existing actors, and then to move forward in setting the basis for future development through appropriate regulation.