Libya: Citizen Journalism Leads Way in Covering Escalating Conflict

21 February 2011

As international media struggle to cover a story to which they don't have access, Libyans both inside and outside the country are using social media to plead for more visibility. No independent media is tolerated in Libya, and international journalists are being denied entry to the country.

Over the weekend, while television networks in the United States featured experts opining on why the Libyan government would be able to quickly quell the protests, activists were circulating rough videos of assaults on heavily fortified military establishments in eastern Libya. By late Sunday, thousands of tweets were claiming that large areas of Benghazi and several smaller cities had been "freed" by democracy activists, who were busy organizing a new administration.

Libyans on the ground also said the protests had spread to the capital, Tripoli, and that they believed elements of the security forces would come to their side as fighting intensified. Overnight, activists reported that police stations and other government installations were under attack. A group of ethnic leaders warned that they would block oil exports if the government refuses to back down.

Despite periodic shut-down of the Internet over recent days, pro-democracy activists have been using mobile phones to call, send photos and video and updates via Twitter to contacts in Europe and North America. In response to a plea from activists in Benghazi, the port city where government installations were under siege by protesters all weekend, supporters rallied in London, Washington and other world capitals.

Reports by eyewitnesses via social media have been consistently ahead of established news media in documenting the spread of anti-government rebellion across Libya. In reporting on numbers of casualties, the heavy armaments being deployed by government forces, the use of imported mercenaries to attack demonstrators and the extent of the unrest, the international media has lagged significantly behind the news on the blogosphere and social media.

As early as Friday, activists were circulating videos of dead African soldiers in uniform that they said were mercenaries from Chad. On Twitter, activists were exchanging information about flights arriving with more reinforcements for the government. "What kind of monster would do this?" asked one democracy supporter who reached by AllAfrica by phone. "Gaddafi is using Libyan money to exploit the poorest of the poor – offering them $1000 cash for each of our own citizens they murder."

Democracy activists reached by AllAfrica over the weekend warned that the world should be more aware of increasing conflict in Libya. They insisted that the government – which has been in power since a 1969 coup – is vulnerable. The South Korean foreign ministry confirmed that construction sites it was managing in Libya had been attacked and taken by protesters. Turkey, citing similar incidents, sent special flights to evacuate its citizens.

In response to the heavy crackdown on demonstrators, the British foreign minister on Saturday called the Libyan government's response "unacceptable and horrifying." The French government has also condemned the crackdown, as has the Obama administration in Washington. "We have raised to a number of Libyan officials, including Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa, our strong objections to the use of lethal force against peaceful demonstrators," said U.S. State Department spokesperson Philip J Crowley.

Reporters from international media have been struggling with the ethical issues of how to use the mass of information coming from Libya. Without independent verification, many of them have noted, it is impossible to know who is sending the reports and from where. But as evidence from inside Libya mounted, there is increasing recognition that the situation warrants more attention.

Over the weekend, more and more Libyans outside the country put journalists in contact with their friends and families in Libya, jamming the telephone lines – which often were the only lines of communication open. By Monday, analysts outside were accepting the possibility of civil war in Libya, if not of the government's overthrow.

On Monday Dr. Aref Ali Nayad, speaking from Ankara, Turkey, told Al Jazeera that he had left Tripoli Sunday as an emissary for a group of religious scholars representing a large Libyan tribal grouping. "In Islam," he said, "human life is sanctified." The leaders condemn the government's use of force against demonstrators, he said, and they want to get the word to the international community.

The scholar said that members of the Libyan ruler's own Gaddafi clan are among those "with integrity" who oppose the government. He said he himself had seen the clashes in Tripoli before he left, and that the government has killed hundreds and injured thousands.

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