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Libya: The Birth Of Press Freedom In Benghazi

The Libyan rebel city is witnessing a torrent of journalistic enthusiasm, with new TV stations and free newspapers giving voice to the revolution.

Benghazi media center
Benghazi media center
Béatrice Gurrey

BENGHAZI - Before the Feb. 17 revolution, the Cultural Center in Benghazi was headed by a woman whose cruelty is infamous all over Libya. Huda Ben Amer, better known as "Huda the Executioner," made herself notorious in 1984 during the public execution of an opponent to Gaddafi's regime. As the unfortunate man kicked and struggled on the gallows, she grabbed him firmly by the legs and pulled hard, all on live television.

Colonel Gaddafi found this episode much to his liking and subsequently showered the fanatic woman with honors, twice naming her mayor of Benghazi. Today she has taken refuge in Tripoli at the side of the dictator to whom she is said to be extremely close. Her house in Benghazi, an impressive, ocher-red structure, has been burnt down. "Courtesy of Sadek Hamed Shuwehdy," says a graffiti message sprayed on the walls of the scorched house, in memory of the engineer executed more than a quarter-century ago.

After only two months of revolution, the symbol-laden Cultural Center in Benghazi is now hard to even recognize. A new television station is being launched there, and two newspapers have emerged with a staff whose average age does not exceed 25. Several bureaucrats are admittedly still hanging on, claiming to have reigned in this torrent of energy and newfound freedom; the amount of waiting people have to do before being allowed in their offices is proportional to their self-assumed importance.

We have no patience to wait, and go to see how the novice anchors of televised news are trained. "Shabab (young people), please!" yells Ahmed Ben Khayal, the editor-in-chief, trying to quiet everyone. Without hesitating, a veiled girl and a boy wearing a tie begin their news bulletin. The camera then switches to the "special envoy" in Misrata, the city besieged by Colonel Gaddafi's forces. He speaks for more than a minute, without any papers and without a single mistake. The maestro points to his eyes, telling him to look at the camera.

It is probably impossible to describe just how extraordinary this scene must seem after four decades of ruthless censorship. "We were forced to treat only the subjects chosen by the Information Agency, and read the texts written for us. No one said what he or she really believed," recounts Ahmed Ben Khayal, 47, a veteran journalist.

If all goes well, the television station called Libya Hurra ("Free Libya") will be launched on Thursday April 21, using a one-hour time slot of a Qatari satellite channel.

The Center's director, Mahmoud Shammam, a former journalist and human rights activist, is currently living in Qatar. A member of the "crisis team" -- a sort of executive or governing branch -- of the National Transition Council (NTC) of the revolution, his position is that of a minister of media and information. The younger members in his team have already complained to him about an attempt by the NTC to control the new station. "He assured us that it was out of the question," says Zuhair Albarasi, a close friend of Mohamed Nabous, a young man assassinated on March 19. It was he who first launched the channel on the Internet.

In order to arrive at the future recording studio, we have to pass through a terrace where an armed guard is keeping watch. We enter a well-lit room that looks like a loft, where young men and women are busy reading, writing, discussing, debating.

The floor above is occupied by the two weekly journals created after Feb. 17. One of them is called Sawt, or "Voice," and its journalists can rightfully claim they have built it from scratch.

"Our main problem was that we didn't have access to the Internet. So we placed an huge mailbox in front of the local courthouse and asked people to put their articles directly in there," says Mohamed Shembesh, 22. At the end of the first day, March 19, the box contained more than 100 contributions and even some money.

The content of the journal was put together in part with these "grievance notes' so popular among Libyans. The journal does not pay any rent for its headquarters, but Idris Abidia and her friend are eager to stress that "Our agreement with the NTC is that what we are independent journalists working for the youth, and that we are not financed by the Council."

On a wall not far away, a giant logo in black and red letters announces the name of Benghazi's second free newspaper, the Berenice Post (from the old name of the city). The team is filming a video promoting the bilingual, Arabic and English, journal. The funding comes from a private bank whose logo is discretely displayed on the paper's front page. Farag Gtat, a second-year student of English, assures us that "They did not ask us to do it, we took the initiative ourselves." Many of the young staff hail from the Benghazi middle-class, and they are all bilingual. Most of the girls have their head uncovered.

At the headquarters of IntefathatAl-Ahrar, or "The Free Man's Revolt," situated in a former English school that hosts several organizations, the atmosphere is completely different. Their first issue was distributed for free, and the second one costs 0.50 dinars, like the other weekly journals. "No one is really a professional journalist. We are all students who have volunteered to come and support the cause," says Oussama, 24. Intefathat has a circulation of about 3,000 copies and is distributed by the youth themselves, as are the other journals.

Eight young men and four young women are sitting around a rectangular table. "We go out, we do some reporting, we see what's going on, then we write the history of the revolution," one of them says. They are all between 18 and 27, and the gravity of the drama they are living contrasts with the lightheartedness of their youth.

"Libya has lost 42 years under the foot of this lunatic," says Ahmed, "but it has not lost its culture or the urge to do well." His colleague Oussama points out that their peers are on the front lines in the military campaign, risking their lives. "Our work here is the least we can do for this revolution. Our weapons are our words."

Read the original article in French

Photo - Al Jazeera English

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