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After Qaddafi

NU-Q panel examines Libya’s media future following first peaceful power transition

CHICAGO --- One day after the naming of Libya’s new president, a panel of media experts, led by Everette E. Dennis, dean and CEO of Northwestern University in Qatar, assessed Libyan progress toward the creation of a media system that fits and serves the needs of its people.

The Aug. 10 panel session, “When a School Meets a Country: Fashioning a Media Vision for Libya After the Fall of Qaddafi,” was held at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s 2012 conference in Chicago.

The four panelists all had taken part last December in a “good offices” conference, hosted by NU-Q in Doha, at which representatives of the interim Libyan government and society debated and agreed upon principles and an action plan for a national media system. Eight months later, Dennis reconvened select participants in Chicago to evaluate the current media situation in Libya and consider how the Doha principles may inform future developments.

(“Good offices” is a term from diplomacy and typically refers to a neutral party that brings together various interests to settle disputes or forge action plans.)

In addition to Dennis, the panelists were Amel Jerary, a former press officer for Libya’s interim government; Robert Picard, director of research at the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism; and Joe F. Khalil, associate professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. A fifth panelist, Jelal El Gallal, former spokesman for the National Transitional Council of Libya, was unable to attend.

“It was very unusual for a government to sit down with any outside organization, much less a university,” Dennis said of the historic conference in Doha. “The fact that the Libyans themselves produced principles and an action plan derived from these sessions with amazing agreement is certainly a cause for optimism.”

Jerary said the Doha conference could help the newly formed Libyan government make those choices but not until more immediate concerns are met. She described the “good offices” process as “very useful in the sense that it served as a shortcut” for Libyans to learn how different systems work and which do not work. If Libya adopts these lessons, the country will not “have to go through the process of things that have already proved unworkable,” she said.  

Jerary also commented on the importance of timing in the creation of a media system, noting that when the conference was originally convened, Libya did not have the capability to implement the principles.

“Before we had an elected assembly, we had stabilization issues, we had no electricity, no water…You have to let it take its time,” she said. “When the time is right, Libyans will ask for what they need.”

Jerary predicts that politicians will be overwhelmed with more tangible and basic concerns in the near term, even with a government now in place, and must be reminded of the importance of the Doha principles further in the future, as constitutional and legal structures are formed.

“Libya is not going to be a system that mimics other systems,” Picard said during the panel, commenting on the unique situation facing Libya’s media development.  

Picard noted that, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Libya had little media system to speak of before the revolution and now lacks an economic system to support media enterprises. The country’s only existing media are subsidized by those with political interests. For media in governmental transitions, this marks uncharted territory. 

Reflecting on December’s session that produced the principles, Picard added “all we could do was present the choices that they were going to have to make and let them ask questions about how it would work in a Libyan culture and Libyan context.”

Khalil expressed hope that Libya would make a priority of establishing a media system that serves the needs and desires of its people, noting that other countries in the region such as Lebanon and Iraq have missed their best window of opportunity to do so.

He said that the Doha “good offices” conference and others like it “equip local stakeholders with the tools to assess and develop their media system.” The question now is whether and how Libya puts those tools to use.

Robb Wood, special advisor to Everette E. Dennis, dean and CEO of Northwestern University in Qatar, is the author of this story.

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