Two Days Of Progress

Delegation and guest experts shortly after the announcement of the consensus principles

Any statement of principles about media freedom will seem at first glance to be predictable and perfunctory. After all, isn’t media freedom a linchpin in democracy and universally agreed upon? The answer is a resounding “no,” as annual inventories of media freedom around the world indicate. Some countries on the “not free” list of the respected Freedom House, for example, have constitutions that guarantee media freedom and will proclaim that they have it.

For the Libyans at the NU-Q conference in Doha, media freedom was agreed upon in the abstract, but not in its specific formulations. This delegation was not a panel of media experts with long experiences either in enunciating principles of media freedom or in finding failsafe ways to protect it. They were instead the very kind of representative group of passionate and concerned citizens who are rarely engaged in such an exercise. Among their numbers were three attorneys, an agricultural engineer, a telecommunications engineer, business leaders, an actor and director, a radio journalist, aviation and energy specialist, two university lecturers, and several media coordinators, among others. All had played a role in the revolution, some running guns and directing missile strikes, while others coordinated international media and engaged in relief work.

They all agreed that, as one conferee put it: “We must be true to the young people who led the revolution and died in it.”

If they died, in part, to overthrow a regime and replace it with good governance, it was said they wanted press freedom – and independent media, as did the conferees themselves. Coming out of 40 years of repression and with few examples of local, independent media until after the revolution the group openly admitted that they “did not know much about media and were here to learn”.

Thus for two days, with the help of outside experts, the group grappled with each of the concepts contained in the statement of principles. The arguments were passionate – and it took hours, in some instances, to reach consensus, even though the ultimate result might seem apparent to anyone not part of these deliberations.

Some of that debate that led to the principles to guide the transnational period and inform future discussions that Libya should have:

– A free, open and independent media and communications system. This principle would move Libya away from its state-owned media and empower independent media, even though the new de facto government could be tempted to maintain total media control. This was a problem that took years to resolve in other countries in transition between autocratic control and freedom.

– Private media should be permitted and encouraged. A revolutionary result given some sentiments at the outset of the conference. Some wanted quasi-government trust arrangements or only public service media; some preferred that the new state hold on to key media holdings.

– Moving the state regulator to an independent regulator will prevent chaos in the present system and assign the independent regulatory authority for technical matters, which are essential to any telecommunication system. And importantly, the regulator would no longer deal with content.

Moving the state regulator to an independent regulator will prevent chaos in the present system and assign the independent regulatory authority for technical matters, which are essential to any telecommunication system. And importantly, the regulator would no longer deal with content.

– Control of content should be limited means an acceptance of the principle of no prior restraint, opting for a system of media laws much like those of other countries for post hoc review of libel and other concerns.

– State media should be transformed into independent media. This principle calls for a limited role for a state broadcaster, likely one or two stations and operated as a public service trust a la the BBC or privatized. A very important recommendation by this group, achieved after hours of debate and understandings of the role and scope of state media for which this group is now responsible.

– A robust system for media literacy and journalism education and training recognizes that media literacy is vital to the functioning of democratic media, a principle virtually nonexistent in the rest of the world, and that journalism education and trading should be inventoried and developed on a systematic model. Again vital in a state where media training is haphazard and reliant mostly on outside groups with their own agendas, and where journalism education in the universities needs complete revamping after 40 years of government influence.

The context for the enunciation of these principles was like “cleaning out your father’s attic”, said one who attended the sessions. “First you have to inventory what’s there, and then decide what to do with it.” This is a formidable challenge for this delegation, which is part of the government and media Libya charged with handling the assests of state media (TV, radio, magazines and newspapers, as well as some 6,000 employees on the payroll to sort out).

One of the outside experts, Oxford’s Robert Picard, put it succinctly in response to a question about what Libya can do. Well, he said, there are three possibilities. “You can leave things as they are, you can create some kind of public service media, or you can privatize.” Or, he added later, find a pathway that is a combination of all three. Doing this concurrently while thinking more broadly about the future and its framework, Libya’s Media Vision was one of the unexpected and important outcomes of the conference. As one conferee put it, “We came here with little knowledge and got master classes that gave us a basis for sorting out our own views.”

The Statement of Principles greatly exceeded the conference organizers’ expectations. We had hoped that there might be some sense of consensus about big ideas going forward, but this goes much farther by explicitly opting for clear solutions and conveying values that have worked to advance freedom of the media in other places.

The delegation left with enthusiasm about their work at the conference, but fully aware that any outcome long term will depend on the kind of government Libya elects and the parliament that is empowered to advance a Media Vision.