Talking to the free press in Libya
Farooq, our Libyan fixer, turned up at the Al Jazeera house here a couple of nights ago and asked me to do him a favour. Would I give a talk to a bunch of budding young Libyan journalists about journalism and, in particular, about how to handle press conferences?
We had been at a 'presser' the night before and I had pushed the Council's Military Head to tell us that he was talking to France about a possible weapons' air drop to Misrata. They wanted to know how to get the best out of these media rituals.
I expected a handful of journalists to turn up. But as we walked into the lecture hall there must have been over one hundred people waiting patiently for a proper lecture.
For me this was a real privilege - talking to journalists who were getting their first taste of working in a society with a free press, their first chance to challenge people in authority or to demand answers on behalf of their fellow Libyans. And even more exciting were the rows of young women sitting in the audience.
To begin with I gave them my own pocket guide to pressers: do some homework about the people giving the conference, ask questions that don't elicit a yes or no answer, keep eye contact so you can ask a follow up question if needed and so on.
And then I asked if anyone had a question. It prompted an avalanche. And they were good questions. "How do you persuade someone to talk who is afraid to?" "Should we only report stories about the conflict right now?" "Do you get special training for working in a warzone?" "What qualifications do you need to be a reporter?" "Are stories for the western media different from the Arabic media?"
We talked for about an hour. There has been a worrying trend here of the authorities bringing in measures that threaten to curb press freedom. Some foreign journalists have reported that they've been stopped from getting to the frontline, their access to the internet has been cut and they've been told they can only work with approved translators.
I suggested they get together to put up a united front so as to keep this trend in check. The future of the free press here is in their hands. And from what I heard during that hour it's in good hands.