Suleiman al Kabaili sits in an office that has clearly been rearranged to convert it into a makeshift studio. The wall behind the desk has a naked nail that used to hold a framed photo of the Libyan dictator. Suleiman, a radio studio director, dates the genesis of the current crop of media to an event exactly one year before the launch of the 17th of February revolution.
“We were producing a radio programme called “good evening Benghazi” on the local Benghazi state-owned radio station. The programme was dealing with local issues with a critical approach and had discussed the call for investigation of the Abu Slim massacre in which 1,200 are reported to have been killed. The following day we were called by the security and detained.”
The story of the detention by the Libyan regime of journalists working for state run radio, made its way to al Jazeera and Amnesty International. Two days later the four journalists were released but their evening programme was cancelled and every jingle that had the voices of any of the journalists was deleted from the entire radio line up.
For almost a year they sat at home without work. However on the 12th of February 2011, five days before the launch of protests in Benghazi, Muammar Qaddafi summoned the Benghazi journalists. He promised them their programme back and assured them that they will be given freedom to say what they want. They didn’t want to break the momentum of the protests and didn’t want to anger Qaddafi so they tried delay tactics giving vague promises.
When they returned they did nothing that could deflate the anger or to affect the 17th of February demonstration, which had been called on facebook and twitter. The call received a boost when the lawyer defending Libyans that were gunned down in the 1996 Abu Slim massacre of political prisoners was arrested.
As planned the February 17th protests quickly succeeded in over-powering pro Qaddafi officials and assets. By the 18th of February revolutionaries in al Baida to the east of Benghazi took over the local state owned AM radio station and began broadcasting on 1125 AM. Suleiman recalls being asked to go to the now liberated town to help the launch of Libya al Hurra station.
Meanwhile in Benghazi, the downtown studios of the local state run FM station was torched by angry Libyans before anyone could save any of the valuable equipment. When the city was liberated, a group of the former “Good Evening Benghazi” team traveled on February 20 to the location of the giant towers where all the transmitters were located. They brought with them lap tops, mics an amateur mixer, cables and basic technical equipment and immediately restarted the FM station and began broadcasting in support of the revolution .
They hooked up to the AM Libya al Hurra station from al Baida for content. This new content sharing process, however, was short lived. Four days after it began, its AM broadcasts the station was off the air after its links were burnt down by remnants of the Qaddafi regime.
The Benghazi group was now forced to come up with their own content. Trying to project the unity of their country against attempts to portray the revolution as a separatist east Libyan movement, they appropriated to their station broadcasting on 98.8 the name Libya al Hurra (Free Libya).
One of their biggest problems was the absence of music, Suleiman said. “The entire music library contained praise of the tyrant,” he explained referring to Qaddafi. Within a few days, local musicians were able to produce a few revolutionary songs that became instant hits on the revolution’s first station.
Early information on radio also included calls for blood donations, guidance to where volunteers could go and other practical issues to support the nascent revolution. On February 21 one of the revolution’s military leader Abdel Fattah Younis (who was later killed) was an early visitor to the makeshift studios.
He used the visit to make an important military communiqué. Since then, says Suleiman, we have been on our own. This statement had both positive and negative connotations, we later learned. Saying what they want and producing programmes as they wished without interference or guidance was the positive part. On the other hand, the statement was a rebuke to the National Transitional Council for not paying any attention to what they were doing.
While the former “Good Evening Benghazi” team was supporting the revolution locally with practical information and constructive criticism, when needed, another group was focused on the international audience.
Mohammad Nabbous, an IT engineer created in the former court house offices what would later become a media centre. Supporters and volunteers, who poured in to support the revolution, were asked to go out and film using any equipment they can find and return to the centre. All incoming films, photos and audio files (whether from professional cameras or cell phones) were classified, dated and then uploaded. Make shift computers were hatched up to create an archival server for what quickly became a huge digital bank.
Nabbous understood that this valuable data was useless unless he could get it out. International journalists had yet to come, so the job of informing the world was dependent on finding a way to export this information as quickly and as regularly as possible. The country’s only ISP was run by Saif, the son of Qaddafi and Internet connections had been cut off from eastern Libya.
Attempts were made to connect with Italian and Egyptian servers. Time was of the essence, so Nabbous made it known through social media that live streaming from liberated Benghazi would start soon. A two way connection was also made from the square overlooking the court house (now dubbed Tahrir- Arabic for independence - Square) in order to show the huge public support that the revolution had.
Steve Buckley, the former President of AMARC, the global association of community radios, saw on his twitter feed the live stream announcement. Buckley recalls that on February 21 and with the Italian Internet connection coming through, he tuned in to the announced URL and saw on his computer from his home in Shefield England a guy (he would later find out to be Nabbous) fumbling with cables and wires. Quickly the images of the demonstrating Benghazians were seen around the world. Buckley posted on his facebook that this was "Libya's first people media".
With the local Libyan population getting their information and revolutionary fervor from local FM radio, Nabbous and his team were finally able to relate their struggle digitally around the world.
In time international journalists, professional T V cameras would come and the newly established Benghazi press centre would allow them to download any and all files on hand.
The vast quantity of video images had to have a television home. Libya al Hurra satellite station would soon be created. Nile Sat, the Arab- based satellite service that features hundreds of channels, refused Libyan attempts to buy space on their orbiting satellite.
Libyan freedom fighters say that Qaddafi had invested in the satellite and vetoed any attempt to have his opponents broadcast on NileSat . A search for a solution began. Any other satellite, other than NileSat would require Libyans to change the direction of their satellite dishes.
Nur Sat, which required Libyans a slight change of direction, was open to the February 17 revolutionaries and soon enough the revolution was also on satellite.
The liberation of the east of Libya brought with the creation of many forms of media. Local newspapers, newsletters and other forms of print media came out using volunteers whose reporting mostly focused on praising the revolutionaries and featuring stories of martyrs and their families.
Other local radio stations mushroomed. Mohammad Bulhaj and a few of his friends went to the local high school they had graduated from and asked if they could use some space to broadcast Shabab Libya FM radio. With help from colleagues from the ‘Good Evening Benghazi’ group, they secured a small transmitter formerly used by the Qaddafi regime and made a hookup to be able to broadcast on 101.5 fm. Later an English-language music station entitled Tribute FM also began broadcasting from an unfinished building next door to the offices of Libya al Hurra tv. They quickly added Arabic talk programming to satisfy listener demands.
Communication was not restricted to analogue and digital media. Colorful graffiti usually making fun of Qaddafi and his hair as well as various depictions of the revolution’s Libyan flag dominate most of the walls in liberated cities. Handouts, posters and billboards are also put to use to communicate support for the revolution and with time to requesting an end to the bad habit of shooting in the air.
A little less than a month after the start of the revolution, the Qaddafi brigades made a desperate effort to retake Benghazi. Mohammad Nabbous went to the front lines on March 18 to show the world the dictator’s brutality against his own people. It would be his last media mission. A sniper’s bullet hit Nabbous in the neck, adding one more martyr to the revolution this time a media martyr.
Buckley, who was intermittently following the Libyan revolution recalls learning about Nabbous’ death from his twitter feed. The livestreaming from Benghazi confirmed the sad news, and within minutes provided a digital audio file of the media martyr’s final words. Fifteen minutes later, his widow appeared on screen talking about her husband and his dream. The usually reserved Buckley, says he was turned to tears.
Nabbous’s dream received a big boost when Tripoli fell in August. Revolutionary fighters liberating the capital took over many of the TV stations of the Libyan dictator. One such station that was owned by Saif Qaddafi, captured by Libyan freedom fighters was made available in September to the Benghazi group running Libya al Hurra. The satellite station with the new Libyan flag as its logo became the first post revolution satellite station broadcasting totally from inside free Libya, to be added to the now growing number of radio stations, print publications, websites and colorful graffiti.
Daoud Kuttab, director general of the Amman-based Community Media Network spent a week in Libya in late October as part of twelve Arab and International media development and freedom of expression organisations supporting free media in Libya.