Protesters in Libya are calling for the end of Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime - a regime that has kept the country under an information black out for years. That's why some in the Libyan diaspora feel a special responsibility to aid the flow of information in and out of the country. One member of that diaspora is OTM producer Sarah Abdurrahman. Sarah has spent the week, not as a disinterested journalist, but rather, as a part of the movement. She describes how she, along with friends and family, have been trying to bring about change in Libya from laptops in Washington DC.
The WavesArtist: Tamaryn
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Bob Garfield. After Tunisia, after Egypt, calls for change have spread across North Africa and the Middle East.
[SOUND OF CROWD CHANTING]
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Holding antigovernment signs and chanting out loud, “Algeria, free and democratic.”
MALE CORRESPONDENT: - Soldiers in the southern port of Adan. If confirmed, it will bring the total number of known deaths in the Yemeni uprising to 12. The demonstrators are calling for the overthrow of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who’s been in power for 32 years.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Bahrain is in crisis. Tonight, protestors tried to march to the city center again. This was the response.
[GUNSHOTS AND YELLING] The police and the army opened fire, using teargas and bullets.
BOB GARFIELD: Algeria, Bahrain and, remarkably, Libya, where Muammar Qaddafi has kept his grip on power for more than 40 years. On February 15th, protests erupted in the Libyan city of Benghazi and news organizations were faced with covering a country where the information blackout was near total. With virtually no foreign reporters on the ground until week’s end, the world relied on the testimony of Libyan eyewitnesses reporting by cellphone, by Twitter and by all available means, often at grave personal risk. The result was a tapestry of violence and resolve, a tapestry recognizable and stirring, but each stitch of which was uncorroborated and unconfirmed.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Some witnesses say Qaddafi’s regime has lost the eastern city of Misurata. CNN’s unable to independently confirm that.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A day of deadly protests - journalists not allowed in but these pictures provided by people risking their lives and finding ways around a government information blackout.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Unconfirmed reports say hundreds of people have already been gunned down on the streets in protest. Libya has banned foreign media, so it’s very difficult to confirm anything at this point.
BOB GARFIELD: The details of the regime’s brutal crackdown were elusive, but the stories emerging from Libya reminded us that Muammar Qaddafi is first and foremost a ruthless dictator, not the eccentric buffoon as portrayed by the western media for the past decade.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Muammar is a fan of horseracing and flamenco dancing.
[MUSIC] His near-constant companion, a Ukrainian nurse described as a “voluptuous blonde.”
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Colonel Qaddafi also, of course, brought along his entourage of 40 women bodyguards – 40 of them, all women.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Mr. Qaddafi’s pitched his tent on Donald Trump’s property in Bedford and caused a stir. It was not a camping tent but a ceremonial tent for receiving guests.
BOB GARFIELD: That gaping hole in relevant context and the current stranglehold on information placed a heavy burden on the Libyan dissident diaspora, Libyans and Libyan-Americans here banding together to get information into and out of their country. One of the members of that diaspora is OTM producer Sarah Abdurrahman. For weeks, Sarah’s deep understanding of Arab politics has been invaluable to us in framing our reporting but this week, for this particular story, Sarah stepped out of her role as dispassionate journalist, as she witnessed the potential for dramatic change in her home country. She has worked feverishly to get information out of Libya and into the mainstream media here and around the world. Her role was to telephone people inside of Libya, to record the conversations and to post all of those findings on a Twitter feed called Feb17voices, named after the date of the, quote, “Day of Rage” in Libya. Once again, in the interest of transparency, we want to be very clear that when it comes to this story Sarah is not an OTM producer but rather an OTM source. Journalists are, of course, trained never to become part of the story, so we asked Sarah about her dual role as Libyan activist and journalist.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Libya is one of the most closed-off societies and, and one of the most difficult places to get information in and out of. And if I have people that I can get in touch with there and get information out to put a spotlight on it then, I mean, it - it’s a duty. There’s no question. I've purely been trying to get the information out. And if the people that are around me want to make comments about it, editorialize, retweet, do what they want with it, that’s fine. But I still do recognize my role as a journalist and that I can't get too involved in that regard.
BOB GARFIELD: We're speaking on Thursday. Last Thursday at this time, you were commencing a very interesting weekend. Tell me how you spent last weekend.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: We had expectations that something big was about to happen in Libya, with the uprising in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt and then things starting to develop in Bahrain and in Yemen and even Algeria. We knew that something was likely to happen, and, and February 17th was designated the Day of Rage. And so, we sort of wanted to be prepared that if something did happen that we could make sure to get information out. We knew without a doubt there was going to be an information lockdown, so we wanted to be prepared. If you could imagine our house that we were in in the D.C. area, I think at one point there were 37 people there, all furiously working on laptops, all trying to make phone calls. You know, we had people calling the media. We had people putting media in touch with people on the ground. We had people writing letters to the government here, trying to get attention to be paid there. And we didn't sleep. We were just like we'd wake up, rub our eyes and get back to turning our computers on and, and calling people.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about the February 17th Twitter stream, in particular. This was the official Day of Rage.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: What was going on that day?
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Well, the feed, in particular, the guy who started the Jan25voices Twitter feed during the uprisings in Egypt got in contact with us and said, you know, hey, I, I've done this. I can help you guys do this as well. Basically the Feb17voices Twitter feed, we call contracts that we have in Libya on the ground and as much as possible get their eyewitness account of what they're seeing, what’s happening, and then either record them, if they feel safe enough to do that, and put that up on the Twitter feed with descriptions, or just putting up what information they're giving us, because a lot of people were afraid to even be recorded.
BOB GARFIELD: Sarah, let's listen to what some of those calls sounded like.
[MAN SPEAKING IN ARABIC]
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN [INTERPRETING]: The number of people who are either injured or killed is totaling 900 and the majority of them are in critical condition because the few who are not being hit by regular bullets are hit by bullets normally used for shooting airplanes. And they are using that against the protestors, and they are still shooting right now. And I'm hearing the sound of bullets used to bring down airplanes again.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s horrifying, and I guess this man was an eyewitness to some of this, but not everything. How did you go about trying to verify these reports and make sure that your sources were reliable? How do the rules change when reporting on revolution in a Twitter world?
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: I think it’s a judgment call, and we really are making as much concerted effort as possible to not put anything up or report anything that we haven't heard from multiple people. Even if it’s an eyewitness on the phone, either we get another eyewitness on the phone or we talk to somebody through email or we call somebody who doesn't want to be recorded. For example, Al-Jazeera Arabic was reporting over the weekend that the government was dropping bombs on Tripoli. But unless we had somebody who saw or heard a bomb, we would just never touch that, because if you are exaggerating the events – and, and terrible things are happening, people are being massacred by the hundreds – but if we exaggerate events, then the factual things that are happening will be ignored. So, I mean, the nature of the beast, we are limited. There’s no way that we can report on Libya the, the same way that we reported on Egypt. There’s no way. Egypt already had plenty of foreign journalists there. There wasn't as much of a media crackdown. So we're working with what we have, and that’s the best that we can do.
BOB GARFIELD: How proactive were you in getting in touch with the, the mainstream press to help them in their reporting out of Libya?
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: We were very proactive. We would tweet at the mainstream media, you know, for example, if we saw a big mistake. One thing that, for example, was being reported incorrectly was that the initial protests that were happening in Benghazi were protests against the Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi. And the source that these, I think, the AP and New York Times and HuffPost, L.A. Times were using was a supposedly independent news services in Libya called Quryna. They didn't realize that Quryna was partially controlled by Saif Qaddafi, Qaddafi’s son, and we actually had to send those media outlets videos showing them the chants were directed at Qaddafi, not at the Prime Minister. And I think that having those videos showing protestors chanting against Qaddafi, burning Qaddafi’s image, I think that really helped them to not just go by what the Libyan state line was saying, which was that it was anti-Prime Minister protests.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, I want to end this, Sarah, with a personal question, and I want to ask you, as someone who has lived in a family of dissidents who never over 40 years achieved their dreams for democracy in their country, what it’s like to witness and participate in what’s happening now.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: My father hasn't been back in Libya since, I think, 1980 for fear that if he does go back, he'll be killed. And, and many of my friends, my Libyan friends in this country, have similar backgrounds. At one point, one of my father’s friends, who happened to be in town and who himself was also part of the older generation, the dissident movement, came into where we were all working, and he was just looking around at everybody, and a lot of them children of dissidents themselves, and saying, you know, 30 years ago we were doing what you guys are doing. You know, we were doing it in a different way, obviously – technology has changed – but we were doing what you guys are doing. And he turned to my brother and he said, you know, your father got a phone call saying, “You have a son.” [LAUGHS] My father wasn't there when my brother was born because he was off working with this opposition group. So, I mean, it’s really – I'm getting emotional [LAUGHS] even just thinking about it now [LAUGHS], but it’s really like - it’s really the continuation of something. And, and, you know, the people, the people that started this for us [PAUSE/CRYING] – the people that started us for us [SNIFFS], they've gotten old and they're discouraged and they're tired, and so much of their lives were dedicated [CRYING] to helping the situation in their home country. And it’s so disheartening that they feel that they weren't successful. We want what they did to have meaning and we want to continue. [CRYING] It’s the least that we can do is to help the people that are dying now and get their stories out.
BOB GARFIELD: Sarah Abdurrahman is a producer for On the Media.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Thank you, thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, thank you.