One year after the bloody civil war that toppled Muammar Gaddafi began, it is clear that the transition to a functional democracy in Libya is still a long way off. Libya under Gaddafi's iron fist had no independent political, civil society, commercial, or media institutions to speak of, and remains a blank slate on which an uncertain future will be written. But it is important to keep an eye on the country's progress, for its path towards developing viable institutions is instructive to other countries of the so-called "Arab spring."
The most potent symbol of the old regime in Libya, as in many other parts of the Arab world, was the absence of a free and independent press. While for decades the media served as nothing but a propaganda tool for the Gaddafi regime, in the wake of the revolution the media in Libya can play an integral role in stabilizing the country by promoting transparency and engaging the people of Libya in the great debates that will shape their future.
The Libyan people understand this. Regional news organizations such as Al Jazeera and Libyans' own use of social media played a crucial role in raising international awareness and outrage at Gaddafi's vicious crackdown, and in creating a sense of solidarity among the fragmented dissent, both of which proved key to the success of the revolution.
The Libyan National Transitional Council seems serious about addressing the need for a free press. A recent conference held in Doha, Qatar brought together media scholars and professionals from around the world with senior representatives of the NTC to discuss how to nurture and professionalize an independent media in Libya.
They agreed on six basic principles
1. Libya should have a free, open, and independent media and communications system.
2. Private media should be permitted and encouraged.
3. The state regulator should become an independent regulator to direct technical, structural, and spectrum regulation, as well as to promote development of broadcasting and telecommunication services.
4. Control of content should be limited. Any limitations should be enacted by the parliament and adjudicated by an independent judiciary.
5. State media should be transformed into independent media operated as a public service trust and/or privatized.
6. There should be a robust system for media literacy and journalism education and training.
These principles can be the bedrock of an open media system in Libya and throughout the Arab world. Post-revolution Libya has already witnessed a surge in newspapers, social networking sites, broadcasting and other media outlets, few of which are sustainable without adequate training, legal protections, and resources.
There is also a massive media infrastructure and thousands of media workers left over from the Gaddafi government. Libya must be careful not to succumb to the desire to purge all media professionals connected to the former regime. Doing so, as some have argued, would drain all of the professional capacity in Libya and create an unacceptable lag before an entire new generation of journalists and technical experts could be trained and deployed.
Libya's first-ever parliamentary elections are only months away. This leaves the NTC little time to implement a plan for the media to play its needed part in this landmark event. To that end, the NTC should act to enshrine media freedom in the nation's constitution. It should also conduct an inventory of state media assets and grant temporary licensing authority to existing broadcasters until an independent regulator is established.
Countries free of tyrants are not wholly liberated without a free and open media. I am encouraged by what I've seen thus far in Libya, where the transitional leadership recognizes that what they fought for is embodied and emboldened by a free press, and has shown an interest in making a clean break with the past. But much work lies ahead to ensure that the new leaders of Libya, who face disarray in the wake of a long entrenched dictator, don't themselves backslide into restrictions on free speech.
As demonstrated in Qatar, the international community stands ready to help develop this vital institution and allow it to take its place alongside the electoral process and a robust and transparent commercial sector as prerequisites of a legitimate Libyan state.
Everette E. Dennis, Dean and CEO of Northwestern University in Qatar, was chair of the "Media Vision for Libya: A Good Offices Conference," which was held this December in Doha, Qatar. Dr. Dennis, who is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations, previously served as founding president of the American Academy in Berlin and founding director of the Media Studies Center at Columbia University.