“I can’t really describe what’s happening. For 15 years here, I was ordered to talk about ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ by the government,” says Khaled Ali, a radio host who was threatened with the death penalty a year ago after allowing callers to criticize Qaddafi's regime. “Before, those words were completely drained of meaning. Not anymore.”
The Voice of Free Libya is a small, first step toward building the infrastructure of democracy as Qaddafi's one-man rule looks increasingly close to collapse.
Right now, the staff are living on their savings – and the tuna sandwiches that local Libyans show up with a few times a day. For residents of Benghazi, the station is almost the only way to get news about what's happening locally. A small four-page newspaper has also been started, but its distribution is limited.
The radio station is also reaching well beyond what's been dubbed as the capital of liberated eastern Libya. It broadcasts on three different wavelengths previously controlled by Qaddafi’s government: 88.9 and 89.9 FM and an AM frequency that sometimes reaches as far as Tripoli.
A step too far for Qaddafi
Mr. Ali, one of the hosts on a show called “Good night Benghazi,” remembers thinking that the program was headed for trouble the night he lost his job, but he and his coworkers couldn’t help themselves.
The nightly call-in show on government radio here in Libya’s second-largest city was getting a string of calls about corrupt land deals and shortages at government ministries on Feb. 16, 2010. He steered the callers toward expounding on who was responsible.
The answers came thick and fast, all blaming the government. “Everything was criticism of Qaddafi’s ministers and how they’re stealing the people’s money,” recalls Ali.
A more ominous call soon followed. An engineer at Benghazi Radio’s transmitter station got a phone call from Tripoli demanding the signal be shut down immediately. The engineer refused, saying he’d need the order in writing.
The next day, Ali and nine of his colleagues were in government detention, threatened with the death penalty for treason. They were soon released, badly shaken. Ali was fired from his job, largely because of “Good night Benghazi’s” penchant for pushing the envelope of what was acceptable in the completely controlled domestic media.
'What we did was 100 percent propaganda'
Benghazi Radio – on which a young Army officer named Muammar al-Qaddafi announced the Sept. 1, 1969, bloodless coup that ushered him into power – was burned during last week’s uprising. The station lost its equipment at the government radio and TV building downtown. But employees have set up a studio at the transmitter station and have been up and running since Feb. 19.
As he announced his coup in 1969, Qaddafi said that he was overthrowing a corrupt monarchy in the name of freedom. Now the Voice of Free Libya is trying to make that word mean something.
“What we did most of the time was 100 percent propaganda,” says broadcaster Ahmed Omar el-Naili, who recalls a call a few years ago from Tripoli in the middle of a broadcast on the weakness of government, ordering him to “stop now.”
“It’s true that most of us used to work for the dictator," whom he and his colleagues were ordered to refer to as the “king of all Africa” and “our dear leader," Naili says. "But we had little choice. Coming to work every day, it felt like a gun was being held to our heads. I’m not getting paid, but it’s an incredible relief to be speaking freely for the first time in my life.”
'We're fighting back'
In addition to the radio station, another nascent step toward democracy is the interim city council of Benghazi, which was set up on Friday and is hoping to convince other liberated cities to back former Justice Minister Mustafa Abd el-Jalil, the first Qaddafi official to break with the regime, as the leader of a provisional government.
To be sure, Libya is a tribal society, and Qaddafi has skillfully played upon and fed old rivalries for decades. Strong government institutions, with the possible exception of the Oil Ministry, do not exist.
Many are concerned that when the revolutionary moment passes, with almost everyone insisting that “Libyans are one hand,” trouble could loom. Could a young officer in the mold of Qaddafi seek to wrest control of the country? Will tribes deeply suspicious of centralized power after 41 years of abuse rise up? All that – and more – is possible.
But for now, the spirit of unity in cities like Benghazi is holding up. And it’s something that the Voice of Free Libya’s now-volunteer staff are trying to support.
“Qaddafi has his plan to distribute weapons to his tribesmen, to create chaos and division,” says Omar Mohammed Jetalawi, the senior engineer at the station. “He’s using his media to fight the revolution. We’re fighting back.”