WASHINGTON - Reda Fhelboom phoned his wife as soon as he landed at Mitiga International Airport in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, telling her that his nephew would pick him up.
The freelance journalist was returning from an overseas trip. But when he arrived, it was an armed militia, not Fhelboom’s nephew, who was there to greet him.
"For five days, I was forced to disappear without telling my family," Fhelboom told VOA by phone, as he recalled the December 2019 abduction.
Fhelboom was taken by the powerful Al-Nawasi militia which nominally operated under the Ministry of Interior of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). In a case that made international headlines, the 48-year-old was held for 12 days and subjected to what he described as "inhumane" conditions that made him contemplate taking his own life.
"I thought to myself, ‘Am I watching a movie or is it a dream? Am I a criminal? What have I done?’" said Fhelboom.
Al-Nawasi, along with several other groups, is part of the Tripoli Protection Force, which is allied with the GNA.
In theory, Libya’s state institutions, such as the Interior Ministry and intelligence apparatus, are all part of the GNA. But in reality, experts say, the various branches of government are run by different militias, whose interests and agendas often clash.
Fhelboom’s case, which drew condemnation from the U.N. and international rights groups, shows the difficulties media face in Libya.
Like several other Middle Eastern countries, Libya experienced a popular uprising during the 2011 Arab Spring protests. But early hopes of a path to democracy were dashed as a decade of conflict fractured the country into several areas ruled by tribal or religious militias, or groups backed by competing foreign interests.
Along with dangers of reporting from a conflict zone, journalists reporting critically on these groups risk harassment or being detained.
Period of change
Fhelboom said his only crime was practicing journalism, a profession that has flourished but also become increasingly risky in Libya since the 2011 uprisings ousted Moammar Gadhafi.
The strongman's ouster allowed for a diverse media landscape, where hundreds of newspapers, websites, radio stations and television channels replaced the few outlets that for decades served as state propaganda tools.
Fhelboom did not start out in journalism. He worked as an engineer in the U.K. for nearly a decade before returning to his ancestral homeland in 2011 to be part of the revolution.
Seeing a free press as indispensable to Libya’s transition to a democracy, he switched careers.
"I wanted my country to get better," he said wistfully. "I wanted to be part of the change. The first thing I wanted to [improve] was human rights and also media freedom."
Fhelboom started as a radio journalist and then worked for print and TV outlets affiliated with the National Forces Alliance (NFA), a more liberal political party.
He says his employer allowed him to report freely, including on human rights abuses committed by militias. Fhelboom went on to become assistant managing editor at the Tripoli Post and contributed analysis to international publications before founding the Libyan Organization for Independent Media, which documents crimes against journalists.
But despite opportunities for new media, the country’s fractured governance limited true journalistic independence.
In its annual report on human rights worldwide, the U.S. Department of State described Libya as a country where civilian authorities have "only nominal control" over security, and where "virtually no independent media existed."
"Journalists practiced self-censorship due to the lack of security and intimidation,” the report read. “The unstable security situation created hostility towards civilians and journalists associated with opposing armed groups or political factions."
The report cited problems obtaining visas, refusals to recognize press cards, and media coverage bans in some areas, particularly eastern cities.
Jonathan Winer, a former U.S. special envoy for Libya, told VOA that various international actors engage in "toxic interference” through support for opposing parties in the civil war.
The conflict mainly involves the GNA and its allied militias in Tripoli and the West, and the Libya National Army (LNA) in the East. U.S allies in the Middle East and Europe are divided over the conflict, with Turkey and Qatar backing GNA and France and Saudi Arabia siding with Russia in support of the LNA.
Some of these militias played critical roles in defeating the Islamic State militants in Libya. Last September, the LNA, led by renegade general Khalifa Haftar, announced it had killed Abu Moaz al-Iraqi, the group's North African figurehead.
"Libya's fundamental challenge is to create an inclusive government, whose leader is elected by the Libyan people, which uses the wealth generated by Libya's national resource — its oil — to provide economic opportunity and security to its people," said Winer.
"If it fails to meet this challenge, it faces ugly alternatives — dictatorship, partition, state collapse, rule by warlords or militia," Winer added.
Whether they are reporting in Tripoli or in Libya’s east, the media face risks, experts say.
"[Press freedom] is certainly in danger across Libya," said Anas El Gomati, director of Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, a policy think tank established in 2011. "But I would not say there is the exact same danger. In eastern Libya, there is now a systematic attempt to silence civil society activists and any form of dissent against the LNA.
"In western Libya," El Gomati added, "the security landscape is much more fractured and fragmented. There is no single authority that, I would say, controls the environment or the landscape, which makes it very unpredictable for journalists to conduct their work."
Fhelboom was arrested under GNA’s nominal authority in Tripoli, but journalists face threats nationwide.
In May 2020, a Benghazi-based military court, led by the LNA, sentenced photojournalist Ismail Abuzreiba al-Zway to 15 years in prison for "communicating with a television channel that supports terrorism.” The conviction stemmed from al-Zway’s work for a privately owned television station.
In Fhelboom’s case, he was ultimately sentenced to seven days in prison for working without a permit. But the experience had a longer lasting impact. A decade after returning to Libya to be part of the new era, Fhelboom has left his country for good.
Living in neighboring Tunisia, he is no longer as hopeful.
"I'm not optimistic," he said. "With these militias in power, with this corruption, with those criminals controlling the country, Libya won't have stability. It won't have any kind of social justice or democracy."
Editor's Note. This article has been corrected to clarify that Fhelboom was taken by the al-Nawasi militia.