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Why is independent journalism so important?

Why is independent journalism so important?

When so many opposing interests try and control the flow of information for their own vested interests, it’s difficult to stay objective.

In 2011, Canadian-Libyan freelancer, Ayat Mneina, co-founded ShababLibya to provide independent coverage of Libyan current affairs. The platform is now internationally recognised as a reliable source of news from inside the country. ShababLibya relies on a huge network of freelance journalists and contributors to supply and verify its coverage.
Here, Ayat tells us why she set up ShababLibya and why, despite the many challenges, independent journalism is so important to the country's future.

When I co-founded ShababLibya in 2011 at the start of the uprising, I just wanted to report what was happening. My colleagues and I were born into a Libya where news was in the stranglehold of the regime, and the international media denied access. Call it activism, call it journalism: we were reporting.
For those of us who aspired to report objectively, we were fighting on two fronts. On the one hand, we had to challenge the narratives and relentless misinformation of the regime. On the other, we found our way blocked by the same lack of access that had dogged international news outlets for years - so we had to build our own networks from scratch. Despite the challenges we began to create a space for independent reporting.  
In anticipation of the 2011 uprising, we had already started building a network of local eye witnesses and we published their reports on our website and social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. I realize now, that my first steps into journalism were driven by my personal activism and yet, at the time, I didn’t see the two as having competing interests. I was driven by one idea: that the truth would speak for itself if I simply delivered the facts.
Delivering the facts then, was what we did.  Our network initially started as family and friends but grew to include individuals who agreed to speak to media from across the country.  We called via phone, Skype, and at times through satellite phone and collected their eye-witness reports.  When reporting about a specific area or incident, we called multiple sources.  If we heard the same thing from several sources, we deemed it confirmed.  Our posts, tweets and reports were accompanied by terms like ‘confirmed’, ‘verified’ and ‘unconfirmed’ to reflect the level at which we were comfortable reporting remotely.
At the height of the uprising, we were publishing hundreds of news updates a day. Although we were all volunteers, our work was professional - we became known as journalists in Libya and beyond. More importantly, people were reading our reports.  
The terms we used, and our process of verification, gave people an opportunity to trust us. We had an open-source sense of transparency to our work. Our following on social media, and our international reputation, simply developed out of our commitment to reporting through verified, live accounts. Reporting in Libya was highly scrutinized by local and international media. Trustworthy coverage had a value.
Tragically, since then, things have changed. The media has become both a target and a tool - an opportunity to shape reality and maintain control in Libya. Rumours and divisiveness make it difficult for the public to discern what is fact and what is fiction. This lack of reliable coverage is paralysing the Libyan public.  It seems at times that, once again, unbiased reporting has become a revolutionary act, just has it had been during the tight grip of Gadaffi's regime.
For everyone involved, this has become a heart-wrenching personal history of gains and losses, in what is now a very real struggle to create and maintain an independent media that will help us build peace and democracy.  We have all lost precious friends. One after the other, they have been targeted and killed for their work as journalists, reporters and sources of information. There is a particular pain that comes with this job I’ve learned. The pain is that of knowing and losing the very people from whom the country would surely have benefitted.
It hasn’t made the prospect of working as an independent journalist very inviting, to be honest. We all know the facts, but sometimes the figures are worth hearing for ourselves. In 2014, 29 journalists were kidnapped in Libya - more than in Syria. Television offices have been bombed, and newspapers like al-Mayadeen and al-Ahwal in Benghazi have been threatened out of publication. If that’s the cost of trying to shed light on what’s going on in your hometown, in your own country, its common to ask yourself - is it really worth it?
The manipulation of the media in Libya has had success in controlling political and social reality. It was easier to be ‘unbiased’ when Libya was fighting for its freedom from dictatorship, than it is now. The lines are blurred between so many competing factions, all getting their hands dirty. Media outlets become their mouthpieces, aping the propaganda machines of the old regime.  
And yet, I still say yes. We must realize the importance of creating spaces like ours and dedicating ourselves to maintaining our independence as journalists. It underpins my work, and contributes to everything that I do. Its the reason why, despite the dangers, it is all still ‘worth it’.
Our independence is our saving grace as journalists: despite the challenges, it is our commitment to verifiable facts and ethical reporting that makes us so valuable to Libya.

Go to the next page:  How to stay independent as a freelancer



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