As the Arab revolutions of 2011 sweep through the Middle East and Maghreb, smuggling news out of Libya has changed from a process of secret satellite phone calls abroad to a matter of uploading videos to YouTube.
Despite their authoritarian and sometimes violent natures, the old regimes in Egypt and Tunisia presided over societies with organized (if marginalized) opposition movements and a technologically savvy class with wide connections to both their ethnic diasporas and the wider world at large. Libya has neither of those things (although, in the tech sphere, it has quietly been making money off fees from the wildly popular bit.ly site and other boutique URL sites with the .ly suffix for years). In many cultural respects, Qadaffi’s Libya was closer to the hermetically-sealed world of North Korea than to its own North African neighbors.
Thankfully, Libya is not as technologically sealed off from the outside world as North Korea. During the early days of the Libyan unrest, foreign organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the BBC relied on secret sources calling via satellite phone for information on casualties and repressive actions. And a handful of foreign journalists are now reporting from Libya, including CNN’s Ben Wedeman (whose blog is a must-read for on-the-ground coverage of the Libyan civil war) and Robert Fisk of The Independent. But for the most part, conventional media outlets such as the BBC, Al Jazeera, and CNN struggle with reporter safety (think Lara Logan and Bob Woodruff), access, and logistics to bring both accurate news and audio video/documentation.
As the opposition has gained the upper hand, Libyan rebels have quickly become savvy in the use of YouTube and social media to disseminate news to the outside world.
As was the case in the 2009 Iranian protests and the recent Arab revolutions, Libyan citizens on the street are turning themselves into an impromptu news service. But unlike Tehran, Tunisia and Egypt, where the YouTube-savvy class was mainly limited to secular-minded urbanites, Libya’s amateur journalists encompass all the disgruntled leftovers protesting Qadaffi’s rule: angry tribesmen, fanatical Islamists, and regional separatists. All of them are coming out of the woodwork now that Libya’s security apparatus is massacring opposition members in the street rather than torturing them in secret prisons for samizdat blog posts.
Libya’s nascent free press–even if Qadaffi manages to somehow win the ongoing civil war, his power has been forever eroded–is also embracing the Internet for dissemination of print content, a lesson widely learned from the use of sites such as Scribd to spread Communist and Islamist propaganda in the Arab world.
The first uncensored, free newspaper to be published in Libya for decades, simply titled Libya, is being distributed via PDF-sharing site 4shared. Libya‘s first issue proudly displays the old, pre-Qadaffi flag, the visage of legendary anti-Italian Libyan fighter Omar Mukhtar and the motto “We Will Win Or Die.”
The resistance in Benghazi is also resorting to the old fashioned solution of setting up an FM station–opposition forces set up “Radio Free Libya,” broadcasting in both colloquial and modern standard Arabic, over a course of days.
In response to all this, Qadaffi has turned back to an old dictator’s trick he learned from Hosni Mubarak: Shutting off access to YouTube throughout the entire country and restricting internet access. It may be too late. Videos continue to surface–protestors are getting them out one way or another. Despite access to YouTube being restricted, dissidents are using intermittent satellite internet access, virtual private networks (VPNs) and dial-up points in outside countries to augment whatever expat networks do exist.
One popular video shows protesters in Tripoli’s Green Square, which they have renamed “Benghazi Square” in honor of the revolt’s focal point:
Another citizen-generated video claims to document Libyan authorities firing live rounds on Green Square protesters on February 21.
A more cheerful video shows jubilant Libyans in Tobruk, the famous-from-World-War-II seaport in Eastern Libya that was recently liberated by anti-government forces.
Meanwhile, YouTube has taken over a second role–helping intellectuals and news geeks around the world get hip to the thuggish lunacy of both Muammar al-Qadaffi and his son Seif al-Islam al-Qadaffi.
Subtitled versions of both Qadaffi’s televised speeches have been disseminating around the YouTube thanks to both individual agents and organizations such as Al Jazeera and France 24.
Qadaffi’s threats to “die as a martyr” in flames is now being widely disseminated and mocked via the internet–a fate any dictator would be smart to avoid.