TRIPOLI, Libya — As Libya continues with its political rehabilitation process, slowly coming in from the cold of international isolation, radio has been among the first sectors to feel the new breath of fresh air.
Tunisian, Italian and Maltese broadcasters have been descending on Tripoli to discuss private and partnership radio and TV projects with their Libyan counterparts.
Private radio is already a reality in Libya, now competing with the national and regional stations run for decades by the state-run Libyan Jamahiriya Broadcasting Corp. (LJBC).
Although other transnational partnerships are bearing fruit, the Libyan-Maltese station The Voice of Friendship and Solidarity remains shuttered. In Tripoli and Benghazi, the country’s biggest cities and with an old tradition of tribal and cultural rivalry between them, the new stations on FM are mostly intended for the corporate entities connected to the oil and tourism industries.
The influx of foreign broadcasters, however, is expected to lead to the establishment of more independent radio stations with a general audience of Libyan citizens and expatriates as their target.
The LJBC has exploited the end of U.N. sanctions to refurbish and redevelop its medium-wave and FM infrastructure from the sprawling urban areas to the remotest parts of the country, right across the vast Sahara Desert in various directions.
Libyan entrepreneurs have shown a keen interest in the foreign propositions. For them, it is yet another commercial outlet in the desired reawakening of the national economy. They know their country is still a difficult one to deal with bureaucratically, but things have improved and the Gaddafi regime seems all the more willing to be seen as open to new ideas and opportunities.
Still too heavily dependent upon its oil resources, the Libyan government is aware of the need for diversification including in the broadcast sector.
With its simplicity and great mobility, radio has been on the forefront of this change, though not without its trepidations. While music and other cultural content of Libyan radio stations have improved tremendously, news services remain caught in the grip of unseen official censors.
“We want our station to survive,” a private broadcaster in Benghazi who wanted to remain incognito told Radio World International, “so we avoid news that can get us into trouble with the authorities. The corporate stations do the same and the atate-run ones merely obey, but it is still a beginning. Ten years ago no one in his right mind would have predicted there’d be private-owned stations anywhere in Libya, let alone these new partnership with Italian and other foreign investors.”
The LJBC has also reacted positively to the new challenge. Upgraded studios have resulted in upgraded programs, although the stigma of state interference remains strong.
A member of the Libyan diplomatic corps said that “Libya is a vast country, and so we need bigger controls. The population is comparatively small and separated by incredible distances, but change is possible, and I think it is actually happening.”
LJBC broadcasters and technicians have been receiving training in courses run by Italian experts provided as part of the recent Libya–Italy deal signed with not a small degree of fanfare by Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and Col. Gaddafi following mutual visits to Rome and Tripoli.
The Maltese connection with Libyan radio goes dates back further than the current wave of openess. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the Voice of Friendship and Solidarity was the result of Libyan–Maltese political and economic cooperation effort, serving the aim of creating new employment opportunities for Maltese broadcasters, most of whom are still involved in day-to-day commercial broadcasting on the neighboring Mediterranean island.
The Voice of Friendship and Solidarity, however, is not. Its station and transmitter remain closed and rundown in the countryside limits of the old Maltese town of Rabat.
Other Libyan–Maltese initiatives in the field of radio in the past included Radio Mediterranean and Voice of the Mediterranean, both of which ceased operations following overspending scandals and a lack of diplomatic vision on the part of both countries.
The end of the state monopoly in Libyan radio, however, is a sure sign of realistic change. It is believed by many to be the precursor of more development in Libyan broadcasting, including the advent of independent television.
Charles Flores reports on the industry for Radio World from Sliema, Malta