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.