World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers


Libyan Newspaper Aiming High

Libyan Newspaper Aiming High

Article ID:

16172

Despite an early explosion of titles, Libyan newspapers were once dominated by stories sourced straight out of the revolution and content rarely differed across much of the written press. During WAN-IFRA’s visit in November 2011, jubilation over Gaddafi’s death and the on-going rebel pursuit of loyalist soldiers animated much of the storytelling. Articles profiling the martyrs of the conflict, virulent anti-Gaddafi polemics, and fervent revolutionary proclamations confronted an eager readership on a daily basis. However, Benghazi-based newspaper Roaya wasn’t convinced that this was what readers actually wanted and, recognising the need to diversify in order to stay in an already flooded market, took the brave step of doing things differently.

Roaya was born out of revolution and has stood the test of the country’s transition to democracy to become a strong investigative voice in the post-Gaddafi era. Editor-in-chief, Khaled Ateea, joined WAN-IFRA’s Media Professionals Programme at the beginning of 2012 and has spent a year developing the business side of his newspaper. With the help of some insightful advice and training from regional and international experts, Roaya is poised to make the transition from a volunteer organisation to a fully-fledged media business.

In this extended interview, Khaled Ateea explains what this year of direct WAN-IFRA engagement has meant for his newspaper.


When and why did you launch your publication?

“We launched a year and seven months ago. The first issue came out 1st of May 2011. This was right at the beginning of the revolution in Libya. We were a group of friends who got together and wanted to contribute to the revolution somehow, and decided that it was going to be in the form of a newspaper.

“This was right at the beginning of the revolution, and we noticed that the international and local media coverage that existed was focusing on the political issues and the more “macro” issues. Instead, we wanted to provide very basic information to our communities: how to get access to UN food aid, for example, or where to take garbage, where it is safe to go and where it isn’t, how to reach the hospital and what are the hospital hours, things like that.”

 

Why did you decide to expand your publication into a newspaper?

“Through our work, we discovered that some of the UN aid was being sold in the market. We started to follow this trail, which led us to the discovery of a huge corruption in government institutions. This marked the transition in our focus.”

 

What have been the challenges and the successes so far?

“The main challenge was to keep the paper going, because we were all volunteers, and also to cover the costs of keeping it alive. At the beginning of the revolution, there was an explosion in the number of publications that were cropping up – something like 160 publications in Benghazi alone. Everyone in the neighbourhood was coming up with their own paper. But little by little, when Gaddafi was removed and everything ended, these publications started disappearing.

“Another challenge has been the media landscape in Libya – it is not used to reading newspapers. There used to be five or six newspapers which were mouthpieces for the regime, and so the general public doesn’t have that culture of reading newspapers. That’s a huge challenge, because we are producing something for people to read and there are few readers.

“Also, because Libya had just come out of years and years of dictatorship, there was a resistance to accepting criticism. For example, when our newspaper started probing the National Transitional Council which took over after Gaddafi, we were accused of being counter-revolutionary, that we were part of the Gaddafi regime because we were criticising the current leaders, probing their corruption. No one was really accepting any criticism of Gaddafi’s replacements – as long as Gaddafi was gone, anything other than him was ok.

“The main success we’ve had is that we’ve continued publishing. The reason we’ve continued was not that we all had the same political views, but because we had the same goals: to fight corruption and to improve conditions in Libya. Even though we sometimes disagree politically, we can still work together, and keeping that team together is an amazing success for me.”

 

Is there anything that limits your reporting? How free are you to publish in the current media environment?

“In terms of press freedom, there is no pressure from the government. But private ownership of the media doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s free of political control. Now everyone has their own soapbox that they’re using, they’re using their newspapers to propagate certain political ideas. So the press is not as independent as it may seem because different political factions control it.

“There is no direct pressure from the government or any official body to direct newspapers, but sometimes individuals call us up. For example, after we criticised three ministers, the education minister called me up and told me that he was reading the paper. He actually thanked us for our efforts, but he also discussed the content I had written – he tried to justify himself. So I thought it was a good initiative that they actually contacted us, but I also explained to him that it’s my role as a journalist to challenge what is going on, to challenge anything that seems wrong in my or the public’s eye.”

 

What changes would you like to see in the newspaper-publishing environment in Libya?

“For the independent media, there is a fear that the self-funded projects and volunteer-based projects would eventually have to resort to political parties to support them, and in this way they would cease to be truly independent.

“As the Fourth Estate, the media needs to guarantee its independence. Otherwise society will not be able to monitor the other Estates, for example the judiciary. Independent media is one way of guaranteeing that judiciaries will not be undermined or threatened to make certain rulings – that they’re issuing the right sentences, despite the fact that they might come to personal harm for it.

“There is also professionalism, the overall quality of the media. There is a problem with basic journalism skills in Libya and there needs to be a qualitative leap in the way journalism is done. Even the generation that existed before the revolution, they are completely unprofessional to the extent that they don’t have sources to back their stories or they don’t source images or caption them properly. The help I’ve received from international organisations that have supported not only my newspaper is essential and needs to continue just to guarantee that the basics are covered.

“I’m also hoping that freedom of the press and media will continue to increase. And I’m hoping that Libya will never get an information minister, because before we used to have one. We just had the state media, projecting one message. But now, I’m hopeful there’s not going to be an information minister and that this would help press freedom thrive.”

 

What are the challenges in making an independent newspaper financially sustainable?

“We depend on two things: newspaper sales and advertising. But the problem is that when we approach an advertiser, they have two questions: what is your circulation, and where do you distribute your copies. They’re not interested in the content or anything else. So because our numbers are small, we need funding to increase circulation.

“The first step was to collect capital investment from the 18 volunteers that support the newspaper. These are the 12 volunteers working on the paper, and people who are no longer involved in the newsroom but still want to support the paper. Each of them put in an equal amount to turn this into a business and media organisation. We’ll use this capital to increase our circulation and therefore eventually increase advertising. What we’re working on now is a business plan in order to know how to best use the capital.

“We’re also diversifying a little the work we do. We’re providing media consultation to certain institutions, and we’re getting paid for that.”

 

What are the challenges for long-term sustainability?

“Moving forward, the main challenge is human resources: how to retain the current staff, by perhaps giving them a monthly compensation, and how to bring in new people who will obviously not work for free. So how to make sure that you have enough revenue to cover your costs, to retain the staff, to bring in more people on board and train them.”

 

Your staff work for free. How do you motivate them?

“We had a strategy from the beginning, a vision, and we had a working plan and a common goal that we were always focusing on. All of these things were motivating for the group of volunteers.

“We also agreed on a code of ethics that we developed. I put a lot of focus on this idea. We have discussed it again and again, and if we want to develop it further, it will be out of our own initiative. If anyone of the staff finds themselves in a situation where someone is trying to coerce them, or manipulate them, there is an understanding on how they have to behave in the face of such pressures.

“It’s also very motivating to see us continuing publishing when other newspapers have been closed. We were also motivated and encouraged by the positive comments and support we have received from international organisations and from locals, our readers, who have told us that we need to continue, that we’re on the right track.”

 

Regarding the revolution in Libya, can you identify how the press in general, and your paper in particular, has contributed to it and to the subsequent developments?

“The press definitely has an influence by virtue of creating the debate, but this can also be negative. Sometimes media or a publication is directed in a certain way, so that the ideas in it are skewed towards a certain direction, to influence the community in a specific way. For example, when a certain group was calling for having a federal system in Libya, there was an orchestrated attack on that group. When our publication covered the issue in an objective, professional way, talking about the pros and cons of a federal system, we were accused of being traitors.”

 

What about positive impact?

“For certain there is a positive effect, because we’re raising certain issues that can be contentious or controversial. For example, the local council in Benghazi is threatening to sue us because of an issue we raised concerning how the council was distributing meat to certain organisations. The story we were probing related to some areas not receiving their share of the meat. We assumed that there was a possibility of some kind of corruption, or favouritism, being involved in the distribution.

“So the response may seem negative but is still positive because it means that we’ve put our finger on a problem.”

 

Where would you like to see your publication in five years?

“In five years, we want to be the number one independent media group in Libya. On a bigger level, I want us to have a competitive edge internationally.”

 

How has the MPP initiative affected your professional life?

“Mainly, it’s been very motivating. I’m very, very motivated by the encouragement that I’ve been getting from international organisations such as WAN-IFRA and IMS. 

“We’re thinking now about the transformation of the newspaper from a volunteer organisation to an actual legal entity that would bring in revenue and be a viable business. I credit the programme for helping me in my thinking about that transition. And of course the leadership and strategy training, and coaching on how to write a business plan, have been part of how I have benefitted from the project, as well as the business advice I’ve been getting from the WAN-IFRA trainers.”

 

Interview by Teemu Henriksson


A shortened version of this interview was first published in the February/March issue of the WAN-IFRA Magazine.

Author

Andrew Heslop's picture

Andrew Heslop

Date

2013-02-15 13:18

Contact information