The rules for Libyan media were absolute: Don’t print, broadcast or post anything bad about leader Moammar Gadhafi. Libyan journalists who crossed the line risked prison or death.
“It was as if Gadhafi was a prophet sent by Allah,” editor Fatah Khashmi said. “He was free from blame and never made mistakes.”
Less than two months after the anti-Gadhafi uprising broke out, journalists in the rebel-held east are happily shaking off the old rules and creating a media boomlet. At least half a dozen new publications have appeared in the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi, and a former state-run radio station now broadcasts the rebel cause.
The newspapers are a motley lot, full of political tirades, nationalistic poetry, homage to “martyrs” killed battling government forces and political cartoons mocking Gadhafi and his family.
A cartoon in one paper, Libya Freedom, shows an eagle with the pre-Gadhafi flag on it catching rats with the faces of Gadhafi and his sons, then dropping them in a can marked “the dustbin of history.”
Khashmi’s paper, Burniq, published a report on the “the strangling siege by Gadhafi’s forces” of the western city of Misrata, along with editorials entitled “Together We Will Build Free Libya” and “The New Revolutionaries.”
Money is tight. The staff at Burniq paid to print the first edition themselves. A cash donation from an oil company owned by opposition supporters keeps it running, but Khashmi says finances remain shaky.
Still, Khashmi now loves his job. “Now we’re comfortable and discuss with complete freedom,” he said.
Before the uprising, Khashmi worked for the Qureina newspaper and website, which Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, owned and said would benefit from greater press freedom. They didn’t, Khashmi said.
In 2009, the paper published an opinion piece called “Where is Libya going?” that called for financial and political reform, Khashmi said.
The next day, it was forced to print a response entitled “Where are YOU going?”
The second article blasted the first for ignoring Gadhafi’s achievements, Khashmi said. The regime soon replaced the top editor with a loyalist.
That editor fled when the uprising started in mid-February, and the younger staff took over, renaming the paper Burniq, after a historical name for Benghazi. They now print 3,000 copies each week, selling them for about 30 cents each.
Most of the newspapers focus on local news and personalities in Benghazi, a coastal city of about 680,000 people. One publishes stories readers write themselves and drop in a metal box in a public square.
The first to appear was Libya Freedom, a full-color tabloid that Mustafa Fanoush produces in his living room and considers “the voice of the revolution.”
Before the uprising, Fanoush published a monthly paper about tourism — one topic that didn’t irk the regime, he said.
But when the 55-year-old retired education ministry employee realized the regime was losing its grip on Benghazi, he stayed up all night writing articles and persuaded a printer friend who had just had open-heart surgery to fire up his press, he said.
He passed out the first edition on Feb. 24, nine days after the first protests.
After the third edition came out, someone called him, read him his bank account number and promised to deposit money if he stopped publishing, he said.
He refused: “I told them that the homeland cannot be bought or sold.”
Fanoush has published 15 editions and promises that his next will launch his first “media battle.”
“I’m going to write about those who profit from the revolution,” he said, with the smile of a classic muckraker.
Readers welcome the variety.
Kheidar al-Ghanay, 50, said the old papers were all the same:
Page 1: Article about Gadhafi. Page 2: Obituaries. Page 3: Local news. After that: Sports.
“Everyone would read the obituaries and the sports, but skip the stuff about Gadhafi,” he said. “We’d draw a mustache on him and throw it away.”
Al-Ghanay, who held a copy of Libya Today distributed for free after Friday prayers downtown, said he was devouring the new papers.
“I read them cover to cover to learn about our fighters, get news from our city and hear about our revolution,” he said.
Other media have risen as well.
For 16 years, Khalid Ali read the news at the state-run Jamahiriya radio station. Most of the reports discussed the “achievements” of Gadhafi’s government, he said. But he and others tried to push the bounds by discussing governmental neglect of infrastructure, health and education on a daily call-in show called “Good Evening Benghazi,” he said.
In 2010, police arrested the show’s staff and held them overnight for questioning. “They called us traitors and said we were working with foreign powers to destroy Libya,” he said.
The group was banned from the station, he said, and Ali sat at home with no job for one year until the uprising broke out.
Protesters looted the station’s headquarters and offices, pushing it off the air. He and his colleagues salvaged what they could and brought equipment from home to build an impromptu studio near the transmission tower on the city’s outskirts.
“It was like you had been prevented from drinking water for a year and suddenly you could drink again,” Ali said of getting back on the air.
A longtime engineer jerry-rigged the transmitters to send the signal, and on Feb. 21, the station went live under its new name: The Voice of Free Libya.
Source: The Associated Press.