Reporting from the rebel-held city of Benghazi in eastern Libya, Democracy Now! correspondent Anjali Kamat visits a new media center established by anti-government forces to report on their struggle against forces loyal to Col. Muammar Gaddafi. Special thanks to videographer Yusuf Misdaq, who contributed to this report. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to Libya, where intense fighting continues outside Benghazi, the rebel stronghold in the east of the country. The United Nations Security Council is expected to vote as early as today on imposing a no-fly zone over Libya. CNN reports the United Nations is also considering launching air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces to halt their recent advances. On Wednesday, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, raised the possibility of, quote, “going beyond the no-fly zone.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times said Wednesday that four of its journalists had gone missing in Libya. They were reporting from the northern port city of Ajdabiya. The missing journalists are Anthony Shadid, the Beirut bureau chief; Stephen Farrell, a reporter and videographer; and two photographers, Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario.
Last week, Democracy Now! correspondent Anjali Kamat was in the Libyan city of Benghazi. She filed this report about efforts by anti-government forces to build a new media center to report on the struggle against the Gaddafi government.
ANJALI KAMAT: Four weeks ago, the protests began right here in this square by the Benghazi courthouse. This is the center of the rebel-held east. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s forces are bombing cities in the west and strategic oil towns in the east. Thousands of young men from here have volunteered to go on to the front lines. They’re hoping to push westwards on to Tripoli. But those who remain here are waging a very different sort of battle against Gaddafi’s powerful propaganda machine.
We’re going now to the High Court building. It’s now the media center for the revolutionaries.
MUHAMMAD MUSTAFA KAPLAN: Hold on, hold on. Let me see. We will go to the press room, go to the press room.
ANJALI KAMAT: The press room? OK?
MUHAMMAD MUSTAFA KAPLAN: The last one, last one, LC1.
My name is Muhammad Mustafa Kaplan, OK? And I am actually a dentist. But here, I’m volunteering to register and document the foreign press. This center was made to fight the Gaddafis in different way, by the media, and to reach the people and to give them the correct and right information and news.
ANJALI KAMAT: What is a dentist doing in a media center?
MUHAMMAD MUSTAFA KAPLAN: I consider myself now as a revolutionist. Now I don’t — I forgot my job, completely. Actually, in the beginning of the revolution, nobody knew what to do. So I have some ideas, and the other people have some ideas. We built and we made this center, and I joined. And I continue my volunteering with them. So I quit my job now, for the time being.
Before the revolution, there was only one newspaper, that belongs to the government. But after the revolution, now, there are almost five newspapers now. OK? And there’s the online TV, on stream TV, OK? And there’s the internet connection that we’ve got to manage here in this building. And everybody is counting on the media. Everybody wants to get the news from this place.
We have many departments. We have the newspaper department. We have the documentation department, which is — I am holding it. We have a library department and the painters’ department, where they paint and write the signs in different languages.
This is the media and graphic designs, this place. The signs like this one, you see? These kinds of signs, yeah. And you do some graphic designing, and they’re here where they collect the pictures and videos from the revolution.
This is where they set up the internet.
AHMED AL-NEHOUM: My name is Ahmed Al-Nehoum. I’m a communication engineer.
ANJALI KAMAT: The whole time, you know, we’ve been in Libya, the internet’s been mostly off, but you’ve been able to get past the internet blackout.
AHMED AL-NEHOUM: We started looking for these systems, tried to stop the blockage from the government. And we, thank God, succeeded. We managed to keep the internet active for journalists, for the media center, for the team of Facebook, so — which is the most visited website.
ANJALI KAMAT: Explain how you got through the internet blockage.
AHMED AL-NEHOUM: Everything possible. We do everything possible. As you know, communication is a new technology, developing very fast. Blocking the way all the way, it seems like impossible. So, we’re trying, and they’re trying, and the best will win.
ANJALI KAMAT: You make it sound like a race.
AHMED AL-NEHOUM: Yeah, exactly. It’s more than a race. It’s a fight for freedom.
ANJALI KAMAT: Has this been an exciting experience for you, just doing this sort of work for such a large cause?
AHMED AL-NEHOUM: Of course. This is maybe the first time I appreciate myself. I see myself doing something worthy. And this is the first time I have been in a rebel. We’ve been mouth-shutted for 42 years. And we believe in God. He started this. And we believe He will finish it in the right way.
ANJALI KAMAT: Combating four decades of state propaganda is no easy task, but one group of former state media employees decided to take matters into their own hands. Four days into the uprising, they took over the airwaves. Khalid Ali heads up the radio station that broadcasts on what was once state-controlled frequency. It’s called “The Voice of Free Libya.”
KHALID ALI: [translated] Gaddafi is waging a media war against us using lies and chaos. So we began broadcasting from here as “The Voice of Free Libya from Benghazi.” We put out calls to fight rumors disseminated by the regime. We try to make people aware that these rumors are not true and are intended to spread chaos and fear. And that’s what we’re doing now. Anything that the state media says, we try to counter with the reality of what’s really happening and broadcast the truth to the people of Benghazi.
ANJALI KAMAT: A former employee of state-run radio, Khalid Ali has firsthand experience of the restrictions the Gaddafi regime placed on freedom of expression. He was arrested last year after discussing the massacre of 1,200 inmates at the Abu Salim prison, which took place in 1996.
KHALID ALI: [translated] Well, then we brought up the issue of the massacre at Abu Salim prison, and our guest was Abdul Hafiz Ghoqa, who is now the official spokesperson for the Provisional National Council. This episode was the last straw, so to speak, and since then we became targets of the regime. We were accused of being agents and traitors and arrested. We were prevented from broadcasting for one year and only returned to broadcasting after the February 17th revolution.
ANJALI KAMAT: As the battles rage on in towns west of Benghazi, much of the radio station’s programming is dedicated to news bulletins from the battlefront. For many Libyans volunteering at the media center, the fight at the front lines hits close to home.
AHMED AL-NEHOUM: We’re really disappointed of the United Nation countries calling themselves a protector for the freedom. People are dying by hundreds, and they’re making meetings, discussing, and people dying here. My nephew now, on the front lines, he’s 18 years old.
ANJALI KAMAT: Why did your nephew decide to go?
AHMED AL-NEHOUM: We cannot say this question, because why all these people went there? Because they believe this is their chance, the only chance.
ANJALI KAMAT: What’s his name?
AHMED AL-NEHOUM: Yasin.
ANJALI KAMAT: He’s from Benghazi?
AHMED AL-NEHOUM: Yes. God bless him. And I wish he will be here when we celebrate this [inaudible] soon.
ANJALI KAMAT: I asked Muhammad Kaplan how their messaging has changed as the Libyan uprising turned from a peaceful protest to an armed revolt.
MUHAMMAD MUSTAFA KAPLAN: But when they began to bring mercenaries from different countries and brutal killings and stopping the funerals, from those moments, we’ve changed our message, that it’s a battle for life. We started peacefully, but he didn’t give us a chance, and he’s continuing killing us. So, we reached to a level, it’s where either we die or we win. There is not another third option. Winning or dying, this is what we are thinking about now. Everybody is thinking about these two things. Even you can see small, young boys, 12, 15, 16, they’re going to the west to fight, without a weapon, you know, because they want dignity. They want to live. And they’re not afraid anymore.
ANJALI KAMAT: For Democracy Now!, I’m Anjali Kamat in Benghazi, Libya, with Yusuf Misdaq.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And that’s it for today’s show.
I want to add, the interview with Karl Grossman that we had earlier today, he mentioned a 1982 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission assessment of the potential fatalities from nuclear plant meltdowns here in the United States, and we’re going to post that entire Subcommittee on Oversight hearing report on the Democracy Now! website, so all of you out there can see this report that has gotten very little attention.
To hear Amy Goodman’s full interview with Danny Glover in South Africa, go to our website at democracynow.org. We’ll cover Amy’s trip with President Aristide back to Haiti in these coming days. Tune into democracynow.org for updates, as well.