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The Voice of Libya

An inspiring story of citizen journalism.
September 5, 2011

“I’m Not Afraid to Die, I’m Afraid to Lose the Battle”

As Libyan freedom fighters entered Tripoli on August 21, my Twitter feed lit up with tweets about Libya and Gaddafi—even if people couldn’t quite agree which of some 112 transliterations of his name to make the hashtag.

Once again, a global conversation about a global event was happening in near real time. As well, of course, as the meta-global-conversation about the global conversation: in particular, widespread admiration for Alex Crawford’s outstanding reporting for Sky News, especially compared with Al Jazeera, CNN and the BBC—all of whom were comparatively slow off the mark.

Watching on Twitter, Sky News and Al Jazeera simultaneously, the collective energy and excitement was palpable, as Mark Lynch notes on Foreign Policy:

“The reactions…once again show the potent and real demonstration effects which characterize today’s highly unified Arab political space.I don’t see how anybody watching al-Jazeera, following Arab social media networks, or talking to people in the region could fail to appreciate the interconnected nature of Arab struggles. It’s the same sense of shared fate and urgency that those who follow the Arab public sphere could feel in February and March.”

Among that shared urgency, one fate was quickly remembered: that of computer engineer turned citizen journalist Mohammed ‘Mo’ Nabbous. He came to the world’s attention on February 19 with an emotional interview given to the BBC from a rooftop in Benghazi, four days after the Libyan uprising began in Benghazi:

In it, he remarked “I’m not afraid to die, I’m afraid to lose the battle,” adding, “That’s why I want the media to see what’s going on.”

Exactly a month later he was shot by Gaddafi’s troops—possibly by a sniper—as he reported from the streets. The background sound on his last report captures the ferocity of the Second Battle of Benghazi:

Hours later, French fighter jets began to add the military might of the NATO’s UN-mandated Operation Unified Protector to the equation, forcing pro-Gaddafi loyalists into retreat. Enormous international media coverage was now assured—but in the early days, it was Mo Nabbous and the network he inspired who made the running.

According to the indefatigable Andy Carvin of NPR: “Mohammad Nabbous was my primary contact in Libya, and the face of Libyan citizen journalism.”

Just 28 years old when he died, in the last 28 days of his life Nabbous was instrumental in getting, “the media to see what’s going on.”

The Human Voice

Sixty-five years earlier, the French author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry crash-landed deep in the Libyan desert, somewhere between Benghazi and Cairo. The experience inspired his best-known work, The Little Prince, and is recounted in Wind, Sand and Stars, where he remarks:

“Transport of the mails, transport of the human voice, transport of flickering pictures—in this century, as in others, our highest accomplishments still have the single aim of bringing men together.”

‘Transport of the human voice’ is at the heart of citizen journalism, which has come of age in the Arab uprisings—and citizens around the world are helping to make it happen. For example, almost 30,000 donors helped the international civic organization Avaaz—“voice” in several European, Middle Eastern and Asian languages—build a war chest for its Breaking the Middle East Blackout campaign. They’ve used these funds to supply high-tech phones, satellite internet modems, and training to activists in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere.

A lot of the footage and eyewitness accounts Avaaz supporters fostered has fed directly into mainstream news cycles across CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and others, as well as through the Avaaz Arab Awakening Twitter account.

Avaaz has grown astonishingly quickly since being founded in January 2007. Today it claims a supporter base of over 9.7 million, and has a multimillion dollar turnover. Avaaz retains something of the energy and character of a startup, deliberately using the digital realm to create a “new nimbleness and flexibility.” This pattern—using digital technology to link people, funds, and ideas—was at the heart of Mohammed Nabbous’ work.

“This Genius Guy”

“When the revolution started, Gaddafi cut all means of communication outside Libya,” says Gihan Badi, a Libyan architect based in the UK. She calls Nabbous, who is one of her best friends, “this genius guy,” in part because he saw what needed to be done and reacted fast. He left the street protests to spend two days rigging up a satellite connection for live feeds. “He just took all these lies away; he was sending a clear message to the whole world.”

A lot of people were involved. Nabbous reached out into his own and other networks. A group of figures like Badi acted as critical nodes, linking expatriate Libyans and other supporters. A friend of Mo’s working for a German supplier of cellphones to Libya got together some equipment, which was brought from Germany and smuggled into Benghazi via Egypt.

When the uprising moved to Misrata, says Badi, computer engineers there followed the same method Nabbous had pioneered in Benghazi. “We were raising funds to buy this equipment and send it from Malta. Then we did the same when the fighting reached the Western mountains [Jebel Nafusa].” These links were crucial, says Badi, in letting people see Libya “from the inside out”.

These spontaneously activated networks found angles to interest mainstream media, and provided contacts to be interviewed, as well as helping journalists on the ground. A lot of the coverage we’ve seen of Libya, and the opposition’s Transitional National Council representatives, has been quietly supported by this type of backroom operation.

In Tripoli, says Badi, there were checkpoints everywhere, with pro-Gaddafi soldiers specifically checking for memory sticks. Badi taught one activist, via the Internet, to use Dropbox, and then started passing on a stream of videos and photos to the BBC. She did everything through the Internet. “I was connected to most of the cities. Talking on Skype, sometimes I was stuck to my computer for 24 hours.” She also got coordinates of Gaddafi’s troop locations and ammunition warehouses which she then sent onto NATO’s Italian command center in Naples.

“I can’t believe I was doing this job,” says Badi, “I am just a simple person, I haven’t done much compared to being someone on the frontline holding a gun facing a tank.” She knows hundreds of people in Europe and the US who quietly provided help and support in many different ways, but says “none of us want anything for what we’re doing; we just want to help our brothers and sisters.”

“The New Media Ecology Is a Game-Changer”

This desire to help—fired by the life-threatening urgency of revolution—flenses the supposed divide between cyber-utopians and cyber-skeptics over the role of social media. As Aaron Brady notes in The Middle Ground between Technology and Revolutions (on Technology Review’s Arab Spring microsite), “the important thing is the groups themselves, the grass-roots organizing and access-to-each other.”

These groups coalesced spontaneously as they urgently organized and accessed each other. They used whatever modern communication tools they could. Social media is one part of the toolset, which also includes TV and radio, cellphones and Skype, Dropbox and memory sticks.

Johnny West’s new book Karama! Journeys Through the Arab Spring, offers a distinction between state media, with its “old, tired set pieces of political theatre the Arab world has known for the past fifty years” and:

“[the revolutionaries] own social and personal media networks. At its rawest, reportage direct from the streets, but also the next level up, an unpaid army of collators and editors, synthesising and summarising the revolution as it spread. These networks were fast gaining recognition from international satellite stations such as Al Jazeera and the Arabic language services of France 24 and the BBC, which fed back into the impetus of the protests themselves. If you’re risking your life, it helps to know, and to know other people know, that you’re a hero.”

Zeynep Tufecki in New Media and the People-Powered Uprisings (also on Technology Review’s Arab Spring microsite) says collective action problems are the hardest to crack because it’s difficult for citizens to coordinate and communicate. And in that regard, she adds, the new media ecology is a game-changer:

“The new media ecology is not just the Internet but a potent combination of a politicized pan-Arab broadcast network, Al-Jazeera, mass diffusion of video and picture-capable cell phones, as well as social media—and all this in just a few years.”

We can now observe and comment on global news events in near real time. And we can help each other while doing so. I recall a tweet during the 2008 Mumbai attacks when someone from the Baltic region, anxious about a friend, asked for the number of the Embassy in Mumbai. Within seconds, it was posted. Seconds later, someone else tweeted the Ambassador’s cellphone number.

When Mo Nabbous died, he left behind a wife and his first, unborn child: a girl called Maya. He also left an inspiring legacy of courageous citizen journalism, one which which Gihan Badi hopes will be honored in every city in Libya. His favourite quote was “A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle,” which chimes well with St. Francis of Assisi’s, “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light from a single candle.” The new tools we have to hand are fast becoming as ubiquitous as candles once were—and as we light them up in potent new combinations the game is truly changing.

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