Africa

Libya unrest: Inside rebels' media centre in Benghazi

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Media captionThe BBC has been given a tour of Benghazi's media centre

For people in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, in eastern Libya, news from the outside world has been hard to get ever since the phone networks and internet were cut off.

But a group of young volunteers has managed to set up a media centre, where they have the internet, cable television and one mobile phone network up and running again.

Mohammed Nabbous, one of the founders of the media centre, set up the Free Libya radio and satellite TV stations.

With his background in IT, he managed to stream the first live pictures of the uprising in Benghazi's Tahrir Square to the outside world.

After that, and before most foreign journalists could get in, other people started to upload their pictures and videos using an internet connection set up at the centre.

Mr Nabbous was later killed by a sniper while filming Col Gaddafi's forces attacking Benghazi at the start of coalition air strikes.

"Before the revolution, I never bothered to read newspapers because all the media conveyed the same message glorifying the regime," says 25-year-old Ahmed Sanalla, a spokesman for the rebel Youth Council.

"The average person couldn't go round taking photographs, there were no press conferences, no-one could publish an article until it was vetted."

In the past couple of years, under the auspices of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, media restrictions have somewhat been eased. A few articles appeared highlighting corruption and discussing reform.

But Libya was still ranked 160th out of 178 countries in the 2010 press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

Then, last November, there was a backlash. Journalists and editors were imprisoned and Saif al-Islam declared that his charity would no longer advocate for political and human rights reforms.

Once the uprising began, people with an interest in media began congregating at the centre.

Now, five newspapers are being published, a new TV and radio station has opened, and young citizen journalists are learning the craft on-the-job.

Infamous past

The media building - which overlooks Tahrir Square - has been at the heart of the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi.

Image caption Relatives come to the centre to search for news of their loved ones

In its former life, it served as the city's Supreme Court and is annexed to the former internal security building - an infamous arm of Col Gaddafi's power which was burned down by protesters.

"It only made sense that we utilised these buildings for our own needs," says Mr Sanalla. "No-one planned the centre, it just grew organically."

Shamsiddin Abdulmolah, a member of the rebels' National Transitional Council (NTC), explains that they began to utilise the centre, and it then became part of the NTC.

"People came screaming at us to counter Gaddafi's announcements in the media, so now we hold regular press conferences and organise media trips for foreign journalists."

The building serves as more than just a media centre.

Medical and food supplies were initially co-ordinated by the council from there, as all the state institutions have ceased to function, and people have started running out of basic commodities and money.

The NTC is using existing systems and local charities to meet people's needs, while international aid agencies and governments manage their own donations.

Creative space

A committee was formed to negotiate with several banks to open their branches, so those with access to cash reserves could withdraw some money.

Image caption Like most people, 23-year-old Aisha Aftaita volunteers her time

Interest free loans were arranged for some state workers whose salaries are not being paid. Though the hospitals are still functioning, schools and universities remain closed and there are no police on the streets.

Pictures of missing people and lists of those who have been killed cover the walls of the building.

Hundreds of Libyans have gone missing in the conflict and families have no other recourse but to register them at the centre.

"They may have been killed, taken by government forces at the front line and even kidnapped from the streets of Benghazi," says Aisha Aftaita, a 23-year-old volunteer.

"We have no idea where they are or what has happened to them".

The Libyan government has released no information about the number or location of people it has arrested across the country since anti-government protests began on 15 February.

Human Rights Watch says that "given the lack of information and Gaddafi's record with torture and killings, the families of these people fear the worst".

The young people who started the revolution are also using the space to explore their creativity. There are art workshops and a recording studio.

Image caption The walls of the media centre are covered in anti-Gaddafi graffiti

This type of creative outflow is new in Libya, says Mr Sanalla, adding that he has seen a new side to Libyans.

"It's amazing, I never thought such people existed here. Everything used to be so oppressed and now it's like a champagne bottle has been opened and all this energy has risen to the surface.

"No-one is being paid for anything, they're all just volunteering their time.

"Now for the first time, I can say that I'm proud to be Libyan."