What If Libya Staged a Revolution and Nobody Came?

Libyans are giving up their lives to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi. But is anyone paying attention?

Protests erupted in Libya Tuesday evening in the eastern center of Benghazi, prompted by the arrest of Libyan attorney and human rights activist Fathi Terbil early Tuesday morning -- two days ahead of Thursday's highly anticipated Feb. 17 "Day of Rage" planned in cities across the country. Terbil represents a group of families whose sons were massacred by Libyan authorities in 1996 in Tripoli's infamous Abu Salim prison, where an estimated 1,200 prisoners, mostly opponents of the regime, were rounded up and gunned down in the span of a few hours. The victims' bodies were reportedly removed from the prison (eyewitness accounts cite the use of wheel barrows and refrigerated trucks) and buried in mass graves, the whereabouts of which remain undisclosed by Libyan authorities to this day. Several years would pass before the regime finally began to notify some of the victims' families of the deaths, and it wasn't until 2004 that Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi publicly admitted to the massacre at Abu Salim.

Terbil had been working closely with the victims' families, who in recent years have asked that authorities make public the circumstances surrounding the killings, as well as the location of the victims' graves. After Terbil's arrest Tuesday morning, several of the families gathered in front of police headquarters in the city of Benghazi to demand his release. According to sources inside the country, other Benghazi residents gradually began to join them, and by evening the crowd had swelled, with unconfirmed estimates ranging from several hundred to 2,000 protesters.

Although Terbil was eventually released, the crowd refused to disperse, and the protest soon transformed into an anti-government demonstration; video showing protesters calling for Benghazi residents to rise up began to circulate on the Internet. Among the chants heard were "Rise up oh Benghazi, the day you have been waiting for has come," "There is no god but God, and Muammar [al-Qaddafi] is the enemy of God," and "The people want the regime to fall." At one point in the evening, Al Jazeera Arabic managed to get Libyan writer and novelist Idris al-Mesmari on the phone during the protests in Benghazi; a breathless and agitated Mesmari confirmed that police were attacking the protesters before the connection was lost. Shortly thereafter, news surfaced of Mesmari's arrest by Libyan authorities, no doubt an unequivocal warning from the regime to those who dared communicate with the outside world.

In the meantime, Libyans residing abroad were receiving constant unconfirmed reports throughout the evening and into the early hours of the morning from contacts in Libya, which they circulated on Facebook and Twitter and tweeted to various news outlets, including BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, and the Associated Press. Ironically, as hundreds of Libyans inside the country protested against the Qaddafi regime, Libyans outside the country were protesting the media's coverage of events. A group of Libyan activists and observers bombarded various news outlets with frustrated emails and tweets about both the lack of coverage and the inaccuracy of the little coverage that was given. Although multiple videos of the protests in Benghazi were circulated, Al Jazeera English posted a video that included footage of protests that were more than a year old, in addition to the more recent footage. It also initially cited the number of people killed in the Abu Salim prison massacre as 14 -- as opposed to 1,200 -- prompting exasperated tweets demanding that the news outlet check its facts and directing it to the Human Rights Watch report on the Abu Salim prison massacre.

For its part, the Associated Press initially circulated a report that induced a collective groan among Libyan observers; the report claimed that the protests had been directed not against Qaddafi, but against the current Libyan prime minister, Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi. Again, Libyan activists immediately blasted the AP on Facebook and Twitter for its irresponsible reporting, which contradicted video and eyewitness accounts coming from the country. Rather than actually listening to what protesters were chanting in the videos, it seems that the AP had drawn its information directly from Libyan state sources, albeit channeled through Quryna, a "private" newspaper effectively controlled by Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, the leader's son.

Although both Al Jazeera English and the Associated Press amended their reports after pressure from Libyan activists, the reporting on Tuesday's impromptu protests in Benghazi and the lack of information available to international media outlets are indicative of a much larger problem that Libyans have struggled with for decades: the creation of a virtual vacuum of information by the Qaddafi regime's strict censorship policies, highly restrictive press laws, and uncompromising repression of even the slightest expression of dissent. This has created considerable obstacles for Libyans both inside and outside the country attempting to communicate their struggles to the world.

Libyans are painfully aware of the fact that their country does not attract nearly the same level of interest as Egypt or Iran, except perhaps when it comes to the eccentricities of their notoriously flamboyant dictator. This, despite the fact that the Qaddafi regime has been in power significantly longer than nearly any other autocratic system, during which time it has proved itself among the world's most brutal and incompetent. Thus, from the moment a group of Libyans inside Libya -- taking a cue from their Tunisian and Egyptian neighbors -- announced plans for their own day of protest on Feb. 17, Libyan activists outside the country have been working tirelessly to get the word out, circulate audio and video, and pressure media outlets to report on Libya. If the Libyan protesters are ignored, the fear is that Qaddafi -- a man who appears to care little what the rest of the world thinks of him -- will be able to seal the country off from foreign observers, and ruthlessly crush any uprising before it even has a chance to begin. Eyewitness reports to this effect are already trickling in from Libya, and the death toll appears to be slowly mounting. Regrettably, international attention has thus far been minimal.

Another problem Libyans face is a lack of organization among potential demonstrators. Even for those who have followed events in Libya closely and are in contact with people inside the country it's difficult to gauge from the outside how organized the protesters are or how many people actually came out Thursday. For many, the outlook is a pessimistic one. Libya is a very large country with a relatively tiny population of 6.4 million scattered throughout its vast expanse, and the distance between its two most populous cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, is roughly 1,000 miles. In addition, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, there exists not a single organized opposition group or political party in Libya capable of mobilizing people to come out and protest.

Furthermore, frustration with the regime is by many accounts much higher in the long neglected eastern regions of the country, leading to fears that protests will not extend to the west, and particularly to the country's major center, Tripoli (although discontent is high there as well).

A handful of Libyans residing inside the country have released video and audio calling on people to get out and protest, including a Tripolitanian woman who made an emotionally charged appeal to other Libyan women, "Rise up Libyan women! You are half of the society. Bring your husbands and your sons out!" Only a small percentage of Libyans have Internet access, but sources inside the country tell me that while most people were aware of Feb. 17, the atmosphere in Libya has grown increasingly tense over the past days and weeks, with very few people willing to discuss the event openly.

In the coming days, the Qaddafi regime will no doubt continue to employ tactics meant to control the production of information coming into or out of Libya and to obscure as much as possible the realities on the ground -- this has long been the regime's modus operandi. As news of the Libyan regime's violent attempts to suppress peaceful protests continues to leak out of the country, it is the responsibility of the international media to be vigilant in reporting the story, and to report it accurately. Above all, they must not rely on Libyan state media for information and must make every effort to reach out to Libyan netizens, activists, and opposition groups, as well as to protesters inside the country, who are working tirelessly to communicate the details as they unfold. Moreover, it is the responsibility of the international community, including the United States government, to forcefully and unequivocally condemn the Libyan regime's attacks on peaceful protesters and to affirm their right to organize and express their grievances just as it has affirmed the rights of Egyptians and Iranians to do so. In the coming days, Qaddafi will likely try to take advantage of Libya's information vacuum to put down any uprising. If the international media and the world don't pay more attention, he will almost certainly succeed.


'Internet Freedom' in the Age of Assange

From Egyptian Facebookers to WikiLeaks to China's Great Firewall, the State Department's efforts to promote an open global Internet just got a lot more complicated.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's second annual "Internet freedom" speech on Tuesday showcased how the U.S. government is grappling with the question of what it means to be both a superpower and a democracy in the Internet age. 

Describing the Internet as the "public space of the 21st century," she called the debate about whether the Internet is a force for liberation or oppression "beside the point." Whether this digital public space is used well or used badly, she noted, is the responsibility of each and every one of the world's 2 billion-plus Internet users -- alongside all governments who seek to regulate it and companies that build Internet technologies and platforms.

This presents a challenge that she admitted the United States government cannot meet on its own: "To maintain an Internet that delivers the greatest possible benefits to the world, we need to have a serious conversation about the principles that will guide us, what rules exist and should not exist and why, what behaviors should be encouraged or discouraged and how."

Much has changed since Clinton's first "Internet freedom" speech, delivered in January 2010. Over the past year, Google has stopped censoring its search results in China. WikiLeaks published the Afghan War Logs and U.S. diplomatic cables stolen from a classified network by an Army private. Autocrats have been toppled in Egypt and Tunisia, and activists in the Middle East have set their sights on several more regimes.

These events highlight how the Internet is empowering a range of non-state actors in ways that challenge all governments' relationships with their citizens. Clinton's speech acknowledged this development, and reaffirmed the U.S. government's commitment to the free and open, globally interconnected Internet as a core component of its foreign policy.  

Clinton acknowledged -- without naming specific cases -- the extent to which the United States and other democracies face their own unresolved dilemmas about the Internet age. These include the difficulty of balancing the legitimate needs for law enforcement and intellectual property protection with the imperative of protecting free expression, privacy and other civil liberties.

Her comments on WikiLeaks underscored how Washington is grappling with the disruptive implications of a globally interconnected digital network. Still, she said, "WikiLeaks does not challenge our commitment to internet freedom."


Clinton sought to distance the State Department from individual American politicians who have called for Julian Assange's head. She made the point that the U.S. government did not pressure private companies like and Paypal to sever their ties with WikiLeaks.  Yet it is well known that these companies were influenced by State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh's letter on WikiLeaks, in which he wrote that the "violation of law is ongoing" as long as WikiLeaks continues to publish the leaked diplomatic cables. As Harvard legal scholar Yochai Benkler wrote in response to Tuesday's speech, the assertion that publication of the cables is illegal "is false, as a matter of constitutional law; but it is not in fact stated, it is merely implied by omission; this leaves room for various extralegal avenues that can be denied as not under your control to do the suppression work."

Concerns about extralegal actions by companies who can shut down controversial -- but arguably constitutionally protected -- speech before any court has even ruled on a publisher's guilt or innocence highlight how governments are not the only actors with a responsibility to make and uphold commitments to free expression and privacy.

Clinton was certainly right to highlight the fact that corporations running Internet platforms and telecommunications services have equally serious obligations to uphold universally recognized rights to free expression and privacy, particularly when governments fail to respect these rights.  Companies around the world face strong pressure to censor, monitor, and silence users and customers when it suits government interests. The Egyptian government's shutdown of Internet and mobile services could not have succeeded without the private sector's cooperation. Research In Motion, the owner of BlackBerry, has been asked by a range of governments to comply with surveillance requirements. Some activists are concerned that Facebook is making it easier for governments to track them down by enforcing terms of service requiring the use of real names, no matter where in the world you live.

It was thus encouraging that Clinton called on companies to join the Global Network Initiative, a multi-stakeholder effort by companies, socially responsible investors, human rights groups, and academics to help companies make and uphold such commitments. Unfortunately only Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have had the cojones (as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would put it) to join.

The State Department has come under fire from some members of Congress for not acting quickly enough to disburse $30 million earmarked by Congress for technologies designed to circumvent governments' censorship of the Internet. On the same day as Clinton's speech, Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a report slamming the State Department for failing to fund "circumvention tools" that help Internet users access blocked websites.

Clinton defended her department's more holistic approach in her speech, arguing that there is no "silver bullet" for Internet freedom. Because the threats to a free and open online public discourse are "increasingly complex," she said that the United States should support "a portfolio of technologies, tools, and training" to aid activists across the world.

It is also true, however, that many online activists around the world do not welcome U.S. money or its direct involvement in their struggle. The Tunisian blogger and activist Sami Ben Gharbia has written passionately about how U.S. government involvement in grassroots digital spaces can endanger those who are already vulnerable to accusations by nasty regimes of acting as foreign agents.

In a long blog post written last September, Ben Gharbia quoted the Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah -- who played an important role in toppling Hosni Mubarak's regime --  arguing that the United States should focus on getting its own policies right rather than get involved directly with specific movements on the ground.

"You don't need special programs and projects to help free the Internet in the Middle East," Fattah wrote. "Just keep it free, accessible and affordable on your side and we'll figure out how to use it."

The U.S. government's approach to the Internet remains full of problems and contradictions. In the same week that Clinton delivered this Internet freedom speech, the FBI was advocating for expanded government surveillance powers over social networking services and encrypted online communications tools like Skype. The Senate considered legislation giving the Department of Justice greater power to take down the domain names of "rogue" websites. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security mistakenly shut down 84,000 websites in a badly executed effort to seize the domain names of 10 child pornography websites -- prompting concerns about lack of due process and "collateral damage" for free speech inflicted by the administration's law enforcement tactics.

Still, the Obama administration's desire to champion a global "Internet freedom" agenda should be heartening for those that recognize the Internet's growing political and cultural importance. With Clinton's two "Internet freedom" speeches, and several statements by the president echoing support for the same ideas and principles, there is now a solid basis on which human rights activists, concerned citizens, and the global community of Internet users can push Washington to better align its actions with the values it claims to champion.

Getty Images/Brendan Smialowski