Libya, a country under-covered
Starting in February 2011, as protests in Benghazi evolved into a nationwide insurrection and civil war, both staff and freelance journalists flocked into Libya to cover the rebellion against dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. For five days in August, pro-Gaddafi gunmenheld 36 journalists hostage in a hotel in Tripoli. Then, in October, Gaddafi was captured and killed by rebel vigilantes.
“It was a perfect story when it was happening: accessible, with great characters, illustrating various wider themes,” recalls Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor of Britain’s Channel 4 News and author of Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution. “But it has now descended into confusion,” she says, “and confusion is hard to report.”
During the last two years, as the story’s arc disintegrated into the chaos of a power vacuum, Libya has faded from the English-language news (except for last September’s heavily covered attack on the US consulate in Benghazi). This past July, none of the articles in an eight-part Economist “special report” exploring whether the Arab Spring has failed focused on Libya. And according to search engine LexisNexis, the names Mahmoud Jibril (the leader of the National Forces Alliance, which holds the most seatsof any party in the National Congress) and Ali Zeidan (appointed Prime Minister last October 14) have appeared a total of 54 times in the Washington Post and The New York Times combined since the election on July 7, 2012. During the same time period, in the same two publications, the names of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appeared 1,513 and 2,830 times, respectively.
When news stories do mention Libya, the journalist often compares it to or contrasts it with other Arab countries caught in upheaval without going into the details of current Libyan politics and society. Such stories provide a convenient framework for understanding broad similarities between countries. But because even relatively engaged readers have been poorly informed about Libya’s development since the end of the civil war, and because coverage tends to be vague, little resonates.
For instance, one of the articles in the July Economist package was about political Islam in the region. It said, “Libyan and Yemeni voters have also strongly backed Islamists, though both countries are politically too fragmented for any one party to dominate.” It was the only time Libya came up in the piece, leaving the reader to wonder about the differences between Libya’s Islamists and Yemen’s (or Egypt’s, Syria’s, or Tunisia’s, for that matter). On August 14, a New York Times article observed that, “In Libya, armed militias have filled a void left by a revolution that felled a dictator.” It went on to say nothing about the nature of those militias or why they haven’t united to form a national military.
The ongoing crises in Egypt and Syria and those countries’ geopolitical significance are partly to blame for the international deficiency of reporting on Libya, according toWashington Post foreign editor Douglas Jehl. Read more in the Columbia Journalism Review.