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The voice of Libya's rebellion is up and spinning

The burgeoning radio, TV and press empire of the rebels in eastern Libya is giving Moammar Kadafi's foes information and outlets many have never had. Not that the coverage is exactly balanced.

April 07, 2011|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Caricatures of Moammar Kadafi line the walls of the opposition media center in Benghazi, which has become a hub for the production of anti-Kadafi and pro-revolution propaganda.
Caricatures of Moammar Kadafi line the walls of the opposition media center… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Benghazi, Libya — Salah from central Benghazi was on the line, sounding indignant.

Why was Benghazi so filthy? Was everyone so busy rushing to the front to fight that they couldn't clean up their own city?

Inside a makeshift sound studio, radio host Khalid Ali wearily rubbed his eyes. Voice of Free Libya radio — 98.9 on your FM dial — had just opened its caller lines for another round of hectoring.

"If they're not asking about garbage, they're complaining that people fire guns into the air all night long," Ali said, tapping his cellphone, which he holds next to a worn microphone when taking listeners' calls on the air. "Everybody has an opinion."

Seven weeks into the rebellion, Voice of Free Libya is a centerpiece of the emerging rebel media, public relations and propaganda effort in eastern Libya.

The station airs revolutionary music, pop songs, rebel-themed poetry — and calls from cranky citizens irritated by the chaos stirred up by the rebellion. It also provides news reports from the front by unpaid amateur reporters, plus caller updates on casualties, missing persons, rocket attacks and funerals for shuhada, or "martyrs," killed by Moammar Kadafi's forces.

Mohammed G. Fannoush, the urbane former national librarian who runs the rebels' expanding media empire, acknowledges that it is a mouthpiece for the rebel leadership. But he also says the rebels have opened up information streams and public dialogue that didn't exist under Kadafi.

"Anyone under 50 doesn't know anything about their own country, because Kadafi has controlled the media since 1969," Fannoush said inside a former Kadafi regime building, where a two-story mural of the dictator has been ripped from the facade. "If you read one Kadafi newspaper, you'd read them all."

You might also say that if you've heard one rebel media outlet, you've heard them all. A common theme is the heroism of the shabab, the young rebel fighters, and the purity and legitimacy of the rebel cause. Kadafi is portrayed as the devil, along with his grasping sons and scheming henchmen in Tripoli.

It's not exactly fair and balanced media. In fact, as Fannoush helpfully pointed out, there are four inviolate rules of coverage on the two rebel radio stations, TV station and newspaper:

• No pro-Kadafi reportage or commentary (at least until the tyrant in Tripoli is deposed).

No mention of a civil war. (The Libyan people, east and west, are unified in a war against a totalitarian regime.)

No discussion of tribes or tribalism. (There is only one tribe: Libya.)

No references to Al Qaeda or Islamic extremism. (That's Kadafi propaganda.)

As the rebels fight Kadafi's forces, they are also battling a Tripoli propaganda machine that controls radio, TV, newspapers and public dialogue in western Libya. The opposition's Western Hemisphere-educated, English-speaking spokesmen spin and cajole international reporters, who are free to roam eastern Libya while their colleagues in Tripoli are hemmed in by regime minders.

When the Kadafi government jammed the signals of the new rebel TV station here during its launch, the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar stepped in with a temporary channel.

In late February, after the Kadafi government cut Internet service in the east, the rebels recruited a posse of young, tech-savvy volunteer hackers. They pounded away on laptops inside a darkened room in Benghazi's graffiti-streaked courthouse until they had built rudimentary Web connections.

Today, there is Wi-Fi inside the grimy courthouse complex, and a "media center" where journalists use the wireless connection to file their reports. To keep out hordes of young Libyans starved for Internet access, volunteer guards in red berets limit access to "accredited journalists" — anyone who manages to get hold of an official rebel press badge. (At last count, they numbered 1,000-plus.)

The six-page rebel newspaper, Voice of the Shabab, is distributed free at the courthouse, where the opposition national council meets.

A recent edition carried an editorial on the goals of the revolution: democracy, equality, free speech, freedom from corruption, and better education and healthcare. The issue featured photos of shabab racing in gun trucks to the front (panicked retreats not pictured) or marching in flag-waving street demonstrations.

There was a public service announcement: "Please don't reveal the locations of military bases or radio and TV stations."

And there was a response to some readers' demands that someone paint over the revolutionary graffiti defacing most downtown buildings: That won't happen, the paper said. Graffiti are the voice of the people.

Some of the graffiti are spray-painted in English — an appeal to international journalists:

"Be gone Ghadafy." "No for extremism." "Go out Moammar." "Libya is free." "We don't want an autocratic tyrant."

And this plea: "Everybody is watching us. Be brave. Use a nice behavior."

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