Before Libya’s revolution kicked off, imposing control was easy at the Nalut radio station.
Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s state security agents occupied the same floor of the same building, forcing the station to broadcast regime propaganda across much of Libya’s restive western mountains.
Radio guests were questioned before they were allowed on air. Files were kept on all the staff. One agent listened carefully to every word – and took notes. Free speech was impossible.
But this week the station has had a revolutionary makeover, and is beginning life anew as rebel-run “Radio Free Nalut.”
The new mission? To spread anti-Qaddafi sentiment everywhere along the 90-mile-long Nafusah mountain, where rebels are making gains against loyalist soldiers after more than two months of fighting.
The radio station's change highlights a fresh surge in rebel confidence sweeping through swaths of Qaddafi-controlled western Libya – and a new push to spread the revolution through still-wavering towns.
“We run programs that make people excited for fighting Qaddafi,” says station director Tariq Mohammed, standing amid his empire of old-style magnetic tape players and studio microphones stuck with rebel flags. “Some towns do not like [Qaddafi], but do not have a chance to throw him out. Others are still with Qaddafi and we are trying to convince them to get rid of him.”
Power of radio
The power of radio across this rugged desert region – defined by the precipitously steep mountain that stretches east from Libya’s border with Tunisia to south of the nation's capital, Tripoli, forming a remote band of sandstone on the northern cusp of the Sahara Desert – is evident in the proximity of the state security office.
When Qaddafi ruled here, programming was all about the president and the ideas of his “Green Book” that sought to blend socialism and democracy, and often used the word “freedom” – though little of that could be found in these dark offices.
But now residents of Nalut – where the monument to the Green Book was pulled down in the central square by a bulldozer, as crowds cheered on Feb. 20 – speak of Qaddafi in the past tense, even though the Libyan leader still controls most of the west of the country and the capital.
And in the studio of Radio Free Nalut, news reports on Wednesday reflected the rebellious change. “Our brave soldiers strongly faced Qaddafi troops,” the presenters said of rebel gains. In one pitched battle a few miles away in the valley, they reported, “our forces stopped them in the right spot.”
“We have more freedom to say whatever we want,” says one young newsreader Ali Saleh Shalbak, who also sat in the presenter’s chair when Tripoli held sway here, and endured its indignities.
“Now we don’t have to take everything to the secret police for approval,” says Mr. Shalbak. “Any mistake [on air then], and it was straight to jail.”
“They had files on every single radio presenter. They tracked everyone they saw and everywhere they went,” says Mohammed Ali, another young presenter who now wears a rebel pin on his shirt, but worked for the station pre-revolution.
“It’s extreme fear,” says Mr. Ali. “We didn’t have the courage to do anything because of reprisals for our family.”
A new 'political education'
These days the initial broadcasts include “political education” programs that analyze the faults of the Green Book and ridicule the “brother leader” Qaddafi, as well as interviews with guests who suffered under the regime.
Local news has also brought new listeners in a region dominated by ethnic Berbers who have grated against centralized rule throughout Qaddafi’s 42-year reign. “We know we have enough skills, and we want to show to the people that they can count on us,” says Shalbak.
But evidence of past regime coercion is just down the corridor, where, literally, two strides separate the door to the radio station from that of state security. In red spray paint on that door today are the words: “Qaddafi is ignorant.”
In the main office, the security chief once presided at a huge gray marble desk and tall leather seat, while visitors were placed in low chairs.
“The political police controlled everything here,” says schoolteacher Saeed Ayub. Files on local staff were mostly burned when they were discovered in February. A large safe lies open at the back of the room.
Yet still inside a filing cabinet are unused forms labeled “Card of Suspicious Information,” upon which informants or Qaddafi’s security agents would list personal details and political activities.
There are also a stack of bound booklets of men wanted by the regime, with mug shots and sometimes virtually no more information than a name and birth date.
“They did nothing,” asserts Ayman Ahmad, a new radio station recruit, as he flips through the pages. “The only reason [they are pursued] is they want their freedom. ‘Obey, or I kill you.’”