Benghazi, Libya – In the dusty city known as the cradle of the revolution rests what could be the beginnings of the nation’s historic march towards free speech.
It was here, in the coastal city 650km west of Tripoli, in February of 2011, that Mohammed Nabbous, a 28-year-old with an IT background, decided that – whatever the cost – he would share the voices of Libyans with the world. His goal was to raise awareness about the horrors being inflicted by Muammar Gaddafi and his army.
Nabbous was not alone. He and some friends devised ways to get online while Gaddafi shut down internet access. With no journalism experience and a random assortment of pre-uprising skills, they soon learned how to present information from all over Libya.
The streets of Benghazi bear the remembrance of loss, with posters of those who died a constant reminder of the price paid for freedom.
Today, more than a year after Nabbous was killed by a sniper’s bullet while out reporting, the achievements of he and his comrades could become the inspiration for a robust and open generation of journalists, activists and citizen reporters.
The Libyan opposition media template has also become part legend, part how-to manual for other movements in the region trying to tell their stories.
In Bahrain and Syria, citizen journalists and activists are using the risky but immediate livestream format to get information out of their embattled cities and to the world.
And, like Nabbous, some, such as Basil al-Sayed , have been shot and killed while filming the violence,
According to Reporters Without Borders, the most recent death reported was that of Abdul Ghani Kaakeh, shot in the neck on May 7 while filming a protest in Aleppo, Syria.
For every person who can be called “a face of the revolution” in some capacity in Libya, there are thousands who remain in the background.
And while there can be several faces put to “the fallen citizen journalist”, most lived.
Some shot videos and sent them to friends outside the country to post on YouTube, some risked their lives by giving interviews to foreign media, and some, like Ayla Barghathi, essentially became web producers – gathering information from the field and curating content to form a narrative. The only real difference was that Bargathi’s publishing platform was miniaturised via Twitter or Facebook.
“I think my battlefield was the media platform, this is how it started on the night of February 15, when Benghazi rose up,” said Barghathi, an English instructor at the University of Benghazi. She has been on and off Twitter since 2009, posting information gathered by Libyan exiles.
“I was getting online, updating my status, getting videos from friends who were outside the security headquarters in Benghazi – very tiny video segments I’d get through Bluetooth on my phone.
“My number-one mission is to be able to be the voice of those who are not heard, to be their eyes when they cannot see, to educate them about their rights.”
Although she wasn’t a high-profile media figure during the revolution, Barghathi said she was certain she’d be arrested at some point. Even so, she felt it would be worth it.
In her wallet, she carries Libya’s independence flag emblazoned on a ribbon which belonged to a student, killed by a sniper, as a constant reminder.
“I can’t get over it. I’ve never been proud of being a Libyan before. And to whom do I owe this? The thousands of people who lost their lives.”
To that end, she’s pushing for the national curriculum to include segments on citizen journalism and activism.
She’s certain the revolution has passed “the point of no return” – but fears complacency might set in.
“I can’t let anything happen,” said Barghathi.
“I can’t, because of Mohammed Nabbous, because of the students that I lost, because of the neighbours, my colleagues, my cousins and all the faceless people whose deaths I posted online.”
During Gaddafi’s internet shutdown, Nabbous and his friends managed to nail down internet signals in order to livestream their reports as Libya Alhurra [“Free Libya”].
They even managed to broadcast one show on a satellite signal before Nabbous was killed.
The station streamed the often dark, blurry and bloody reality of the war by circumventing every effort to control media made by the Gaddafi regime.
In describing to a documentary crew how the station came together, Nabbous explained that things happened “minute by minute” with one person bringing a server, another a camera, another a screen, and so on. What he didn’t have, he built.
“We started just making things out of nothing,” he said.
In the end, Libya Alhurra became an actual TV station employing about 150 people, complete with studio editing suites – everything needed for a functioning TV channel. It may have a significant role in how the new media landscape of the country takes shape.
The station started test broadcasting at the end of May 2011. First it aired for only two hours a day; then four, then six. On May 12, 2012, the station started broadcasting 24 hours when it re-launched from a reclaimed house in Benghazi.
“We were planning not only to be the voice of the revolution, but also to carry on with the revolution until we reach the goals for the freedom of Libya,” said Saleh Magdub, chairman of Libya Alhurra TV .
“The media has two special goals; one, to be free, in terms not only of free speech, but in terms of organisation. If you want real democracy and real freedom, the media should be a part of it, and should be also constructed as the Fourth Estate, not as part of the government, but parallel with the other powers.”
The station’s other goal is to train journalists. It has applied for a license to open two schools, in Tripoli and Benghazi. At present, Alhurra hires Libyans with little experience. Many are young, self-styled journalists, like Nabbous himself.
Breaking the mould
Even with Nabbous gone, his friends and colleagues, such as cameraman Emrajaa al-Obeidi, continue to carry out what they began at the birth of the revolution.
“We are all willing to die for the same thing as Mohammed, the truth,” said Obeidi, who met Nabbous seven years ago when the two had an opinion clash at the internet café Nabbous ran. (Obeidi thought Libyan youth were lazy, Nabbous disagreed.)
Engineers in Libya Alhurra TV’s studio – the station has gone
Obeidi added: “He said: ‘You have to work with me,’ and I said: ‘No, we don’t agree on anything,’ and he said: ‘That’s why you have to work with me.'”
Like many citizen journalists, Nabbous became politically active only when he felt there was a need for it, said Obeidi.
“His goal was, after the liberation of Libya, to go straight back to work. He was not interested in opening a station.”
Zuhair el-Burrasi, an anchor at Libya Alhurra , was also with Nabbous and Obeidi at the beginning. What started as a short-term job has evolved beyond what he imagined at the time.
“I think most people now respect and trust Libya Alhurra . The personalities at our station are very close to the people,” said Burrasi, a former businessman.
Burrasi said those involved in the station did not take their responsibily lighty.
“I see a lot of people who were not in the media, and then, after the revolution, there was more than 160 newspapers, and all these journalists, they’ve been inspired by the revolution and by Mohammed Nabbous,” said Burrasi.
The government office for supporting and encouraging the media has recorded about 450 publications – magazines, newspapers and bulletins – in circulation in Libya, though it does not count how many of those that started after the revolution have since ceased to publish.
Exile ‘not an option’
Obeidi and Burrasi both spoke of their friend as a determined young man who set the tone for their mission when he said that his fear of failure trumped his fear of death.
And Nabbous was a man with a lot to lose. At the time of his death, Nabbous’s wife, Samra Naas, was pregnant with their daughter, Maya.
“He said to me” ‘Sam, if this revolution doesn’t succeed, we’re going to have to live in exile for the rest of our lives,'” said Naas, who lives and raises her daughter in Benghazi.
“And that just wasn’t an option,” she added.
For Naas, her husband’s legacy is apparent, but fragile.
“Before the revolution, I wouldn’t have been active in civil society. I wouldn’t have talked to journalists. [Knowing] I can say my opinion, I can criticise anyone,” said Naas.
“Before, I wouldn’t have dared to speak out.”
It is a different world now for Naas, who has become extraordinarily outspoken. She said certain ministers were “taking people for fools”. The upcoming elections are rushed, in her opinion, she said a total overhaul of attitudes is required “from scratch” to make real progress in Libya.
She said this “progress” is was what her husband, and many others, fought for. In the end it could mean transparency between government and the people, and transparency between government departments.
“I’m not the only one who lost a husband,” said Naas. “It means something and it will continue to mean something.”
Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @Dparvaz