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Rebellion sparks media renaissance

by Executive Editors

On a chilly early March evening in  Benghazi, staff at the recently formed newspaper Libya worked furiously under the dim light of two dangling bulbs. Notebooks, hard drives, empty water bottles and tangled cords covered the news desk as writers’ faces glowed blue from the light of their laptop screens, their eyes tired from long days of hard grind.

Operating out of a former state security building on the Mediterranean waterfront, the newsroom walls were covered in colored caricatures criticizing Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi. One poster showed him as half of a two-headed dragon and another with Michael Jackson’s nose. Like other writers, journalists and activists that have mobilized in the midst of Libya’s uprising, the volunteer team has embraced newfound media freedoms after nearly 42 years of repression. 

For the first time in more than four decades, radio broadcasts relate accounts of events across the country uncensored by government authorities. While rebels battle Qadhafi’s forces on the front lines, press warriors back in Benghazi’s media bastion armed themselves with the power of the printed word, waging their resistance with computers and notebooks. As Executive went to press, more than half a dozen new publications had been founded in rebel-liberated eastern Libya since the revolution began on February 17.

“This paper allows us to get out the depression we’ve been storing within ourselves for years,” said Libya editor Mohammad Sader Mousa. The head of the media department at Garyounes University in Benghazi came up with the idea for the paper just before midnight on February 22, in the early days of the anti-Qadhafi uprising. He worked furiously throughout the night making calls to colleagues whom he thought would be willing to help.

“I was here in the media center and I told people about the significance [and] the role of media in revolutions,” he said, sporting a button of the red, black and green pre-Qadaffi Libyan flag on his navy blue coat. “The only way we could communicate locally was by making a newspaper and then try to have it reach the world outside through the Internet.”

That night, electrical engineers moved in to the soon-to-be news bureau to set up a satellite Internet connection. All other networks across the country had been cut. While writers hastily gathered to flesh out reports, a publishing house volunteered to print the paper for free. By 10 am that morning the first edition was printed.

“When it was finished we couldn’t believe it,” he said. “We looked at it and thought, ‘How come?’” Neither Mousa nor anyone else on his team has spent a penny on the publication, which has a print run of 1,500 papers a day and a team that quickly grew to 62 members.

“Freedom is the sweetest thing,” said 47-year-old volunteer Amal bin Ghazi as she tapped away on her silver laptop – one of nine personal computers spread across the table, all used by writers and editors nearing deadlines. “Because I’m working with this group there is a feeling of liberty within me.”

“I always saw the truth but I could never talk about it. There was no freedom of speech, no real journalism”

A print-run repressed

If it weren’t for the uprising, another Libya volunteer, 25-year-old Ousbah Awami, would have been pounding out words in the office of a newspaper with much different stripes; for years Awami worked at Qurayna, a paper created in 2007 by a company owned by Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, one of Colonel Qadhafi’s sons. While Awami did occasionally write articles for the paper that were critical of the regime, his editor consistently prevented them from being published.

“I always saw the truth but I could never talk about it,” he said. “There was no freedom of speech, no real journalism.”

But the tide changed for Awami and his colleagues when Libya followed Tunisia and Egypt in revolt. He and a handful of others spent nights sneaking into the Qurayna office to send pictures and videos of the uprising — not yet widely covered by international press — to news agencies outside of the country, as at the time, the newspaper had one of the country’s only working Internet connections. In doing so they were not only at risk of being attacked by Qadhafi’s supporters, said Awami, but also from rebels if they were mistaken for supporting the dictator.

Operations at the newspaper took a turn after a bloody Benghazi battle left scores of anti-Qadhafi protesters dead. Members of the staff decided to write and run a story documenting the events and announced they had sided with the rebels. “After that we stopped calling Qadhafi a leader and called him a criminal, a murderer,” said Awami. But this didn’t come without risk. “One by one, every staff member received a phone call from someone saying, ‘We can kill you. We can kill your family,’” he explained.

When the newspaper’s editor fled the office shortly thereafter, Awami claims he took 100,000 Libyan dinars ($83,194) with him, swindling the 120-person staff of two months’ salary, although this could not be independently verified by Executive. Awami added that their Internet connection was subsequently inoperable. For two weeks the employees worked without pay, but have since been receiving funding from Libya’s Al Khaleej oil company, allowing them to continue to print 10,000 copies per week under a new editorial committee and the new name, Bourniq, after an ancient city northeast of Benghazi.

Journalists under fire

Despite the new tastes of freedom in parts of Libya, concerns loom large for local and international journalists. As the momentum of the uprising shifted in the favor of pro-government forces through mid-March, conditions deteriorated for reporters. Al-Jazeera cameraman Ali Hassan al-Jaber was killed and another wounded on March 12 on the outskirts of Benghazi when gunmen opened fire on their car; on March 19, Mohammed Nabbous, founder of the recently-launched independent Libya AlHurra TV (and one of the founders of the Benghazi media center) who provided video coverage of the rebellion, was shot in the head by a sniper while covering a government attack on Benghazi.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented more than 50 anti-press attacks that include assaults, detentions and threats. Some 13 journalists are either missing or in government custody, according to the CPJ. The missing include four from Al Jazeera and two from Agence France-Presse. In addition, six Libyan journalists are unaccounted for, the group said. The tense situation prompted at least three Bourniq reporters to resign from the paper for fear of losing their lives. “I don’t sleep at home anymore; I don’t use my own car; everyday I’m concerned for my safety,” said Awami.

“We will fight back with media. We are going to destroy him”

Warrior poets

To enter the rebels’ political headquarters, inside an old courthouse in North Benghazi, one must pass a short interrogation by armed guards and walk through a metal detector at a side entrance. Tucked into a small corner room of the courthouse last month was 21-year-old Ash Mohamed Zagogo, writing poems about the liberation of Libya. Judges’ robes hung from a coat rack to Zagogo’s right and law books lay dusty in a bookcase behind him. The former break room is now the operating base of Libya Al-Hurriyah, Arabic for “Free Libya.”

“I write these words not from my mind, but from my heart,” Zagogo said, after reciting a poem he wrote for the paper, which publishes both articles and art. Like other start-up newspapers here, donations cover the operation costs of running Libya Hurriyah, printed every other day and distributed in cities all the way to the Egyptian border. Most of the people on the staff are female lawyers and students. “They volunteer because they feel the injustice that people are living,” said Warida Bernawi, the 35-year-old director of Libya Hurriyah.

While she bustles about the room, a group of young women hunch over a single computer across from where Zagogo and two others quietly write. Although night had long fallen over the Mediterranean town, it would still be hours before the staff went home for a few hours rest.

“Do you know Qadhafi called us rats?” Zagogo asks, his face stiffening as he quickly sat up. “He crossed the line, so we will fight back with media. We are going to destroy him.”

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Executive Editors

Executive Editors are the collective voice of the magazine. Stories written by Executive Editors are the culmination of discussions, brainstorming, research and information-gathering by our editorial team. Over decades, our editorial team has applied a blend of seasoned expertise and a discerning eye to bring you insightful and engaging and substantive reads that eschew sensationalism.
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