The murder of an Al Jazeera cameraman outside of the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on Saturday is sending a chill throughout the foreign press corps in this city, the de facto capital of the uprising against Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
Reporters here – who were just days ago welcomed with open arms by opponents of Mr. Qaddafi's 41-year rule – are now being threatened by Qaddafi loyalists emboldened by their forces' rapid approach on Benghazi.
Ali Hassan al Jaber, a Qatari national, was killed in an ambush about 15 miles outside of Benghazi when gunmen presumed to be Qaddafi loyalists sprayed his vehicle with gunfire. The other three Al Jazeera employees in the car escaped with only minor injuries.
Many foreign reporters in Benghazi are now preparing to move out of the city, frightened by Mr. Qaddafi’s advance, his repeated threats to treat journalists like “terrorists,” and the murder of Mr. Jaber.
Inside and around the city, supporters of Qaddafi have become bolder as his forces have advanced east. Benghazi was larded with secret police and Qaddafi supporters in patronage posts before the uprising, and many remained here when the city fell.
Now, they’re becoming visible again.
Foreign reporters at some of the city’s hotels have had their rooms searched and there’s a firm belief among Libyans here that the massive explosion at the city’s largest munitions dump last week was an act of sabotage.
Last night, even as thousands of citizens gathered outside the Benghazi courthouse to mourn and hail the murdered Jaber, waving both Qatari and "Free Libya" flags, one foreign reporter returning to his hotel was approached by two men riding on a motorbike. “Go home, go home,” they shouted at him.
It was a small incident, but something that would have been unthinkable even a week ago, when foreign reporters couldn’t even pay for their own cups of coffee or cellphone cards as Libyans here insisted foreign coverage of the uprising was crucial to their success.
All indications are that Qaddafi wants to drive most of the foreign press from the country. He’s already declared foreign reporters working in the east of the country to be working for “Al Qaeda.”
Press he invited to Tripoli, and who his son, Saif Islam, promised could report freely, have been increasingly harassed. A BBC crew were subjected to a mock execution by Qaddafi’s troops last week before being released, and on Friday a crew from CNN were detained and threatened. They were soon released, but the whereabouts of the Libyan taxi driver assisting them are unknown.
A reporter for a regional TV network in Benghazi, with long experience covering Libya, says he was called by a senior member of the Qaddafi regime on Saturday and told: “If our people catch you in Benghazi, they won’t care where you’re from. You will face the consequences.”