By George Grant.
Tripoli, 26 November:
The National Congress has voted to create a new Ministry of Information to regulate the Libyan media.
The new body is designed to replace two pre-existing media councils, the first created by the National Transitional Council and the second established by the media themselves at a major conference in Jadu in June.
Controversy has surrounded the move, with several Congressmen arguing not only that the ministry could infringe on freedom of speech, but also that the decision was not Congress’s to make.
“I was totally against this because I want my people free”, said independent Benghazi Congressman Suleiman Zubi today. “I shouted so many times, this is a very dangerous road. We have to be free or else we don’t have democracy”.
Zubi’s sentiments were echoed by Mokhtar Elatrash, another independent Congressman from the town of Khoms. “I am not in favour of government interference in the media”, he said, adding that in any event, such decisions should be the prerogative of the executive, not the legislature.
“It is for the government to decide if there is a new ministry or not, and we then vote on the proposal”, Elatrash said. “This is an executive matter and Congress should not interfere. I think they have overstepped into the decisions of the government.”
Lines of authority have been further clouded by remarks made by Prime Minister Zeidan upon unveiling his cabinet that he had not appointed a “media minister” as he wanted to allow Congress to discuss the matter. At the governmental level, issues relating to the press currently fall under the purview of the Ministry of Culture, although it does not exercise a regulatory role.
Thirty-nine members of Congress voted against the proposal, whilst 73 voted in favour. Some 15 members are understood to have abstained whilst the remainder were absent.
Supporters of the move have argued that that an effective regulatory body is necessary to supervise the Libyan mass media and replace the two previous councils, which they describe as ineffective.
“The Ministry of Information will absolutely not control what the media can or cannot say”, insisted Benghazi independent Congressman Alaeddin Magarief, who voted in favour of the proposal. The revolution was based on the basic freedom of speech and we all agree on that, but freedom is not the same as chaos, which is what we have now.
“The NTC left us with two bodies to supervise the media, and both approached us claiming to be the ones in charge. They both had exactly the same job, and they both said they were the right people to do it.”
Magarief also disputed that the decision contravened the government’s authority, arguing that Congress has only voted that such a body should be created, whilst it will be up to the government to decide on the detail and to implement.
Moreover, the Congressman said, the Ministry of Information would not be a permanent body, but would run for the life of the current government.
It is understood that three potential options passed through Congress’s media and legal committees, with two emerging on the other side to be voted upon. The second option was to establish some form of watchdog-style regulatory entity without the powers of a full government ministry.
Libya’s new media has been frequently criticised for publishing rumours and misinformation, with even opponents of the bill such as Elatrash arguing that a problem existed in that regard. “What is problematic is that today’s media has no regulation at all, and there are so many false stories and rumours, which often leads to feuding and that is harming society. Look at all the rumours that circulated during the fight in Bani Walid.”
Inevitably, however, there are fears in media circles that even well-intended media regulation could be abused if not strictly organised and subjected to proper safeguards, the implementation and enforcement of which may be difficult in the current transitional climate.
This evening, the office of Prime Minister Zeidan confirmed that no decisions had yet been taken on who the new Minister of Information would be.