Free of Qaddafi’s Grip, Young Libyans in Benghazi Find a Voice

Atem Shembesh says she rarely read newspapers before the Libyan rebellion began in February. Now, the 17-year-old high school student writes for one that she founded with two friends.

Berenice Post, an Arabic and English weekly, is one of more than 50 publications that have sprung up in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi since the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi. Young Libyans in this eastern city are taking advantage of newfound freedoms to churn out publications, sketch anti-Qaddafi caricatures and record revolutionary rap.

“I wasn’t interested in newspapers because they didn’t present the truth,” Shembesh said. “For the first time, we have freedom of speech and of the press. We have so much to say and the media is the best way to do it.”

Rebel leaders, who are lobbying the international community for recognition and funds, tout the changes as a sign of commitment to an open Libya. European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton, visiting Benghazi on May 22, told reporters she was “astonished” at how many new titles have hit newsstands. Only last year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Libya 160th out of 178 countries in its press freedom index.

“Even while fighting for our lives, we have begun to put the building blocks in place for a free society,” Mahmoud Gebril, who heads the opposition’s executive body, wrote in The New York Times on May 12. “The people of Benghazi, the base of our struggle, are participating in traffic control and trash collection, and creating newspapers and radio stations that reflect the new spirit of tolerance and freedom.”

Youth Movement

In a country where the median age is 24 1/2, “the next stage belongs to the youth,” said Abdelhafiz Ghoga, vice president of the rebel’s National Transitional Council, in an interview in Benghazi.

While Ghoga recently told journalists that Libya needs a “responsible” media that “serves the goals of the revolution,” some young writers are less restrained. “They don’t call the press the fourth estate for nothing,” said Idris Abidia, 24, a medical student and co-creator of Sawt, or Voice, newspaper. “There has to be accountability.”

For now, the young journalists and artists have their sights set on Qaddafi, whose forces continue to battle for control of cities in western Libya.

Akram Alibruki, a 30-year-old partner in a clothes store with a passion for caricatures, says that when he used to sketch unflattering drawings of the Libyan leader, he’d do so only at home and carefully shred his work afterwards. These days he exhibits his cartoons at a media center in Benghazi where visitors tread on a rug bearing the face of a young Qaddafi.

Artistic ‘Jihad’

Sitting under a wall plastered with caricatures, one showing Qaddafi in a prison cell with an iron ball chained to his leg, Alibruki calls his art “a jihad,” or struggle.

“I want to show the crimes that Qaddafi has committed,” he said. “We’re making up for years of suppression. Now, I can draw whatever I feel like.” His work was displayed at an exhibition in Egypt and has been published in the local press.

At a Benghazi cultural center that has become home to several newspapers, young Libyans in skinny jeans and t-shirts tap on keyboards and huddle around desks to brainstorm. At press conferences, they compete with seasoned foreign correspondents to quiz rebel officials.

The new publications carry interviews with Qaddafi’s opponents, frontline news, profiles of those who perished in the fight, poems and diary-like pieces. Some publish definitions of words like “democracy” and “constitution.”

One-Man State

“When the regime started to collapse in the east we heard the people say: ‘We want constitution, civil society and parliament,’” said Abidia. “But when you ask the youths what these are, they fall silent.”

To give other Libyans a voice, Abidia and five friends who created Sawt set up a mailbox outside the Benghazi courthouse, the epicenter of the protests. They publish the letters left there. “Sometimes people leave us donations too.” He and his friend pay for Sawt’s 3,000 weekly copies themselves. They’re looking for a sponsor.

“They are very enthusiastic youths who tried to tear down a barrier,” said 47-year-old journalist Moftah Abou Zeid. “I commend that, but they’re not specialists.” Abidia admits their first issue, which appeared in March, was a “disaster,” replete with grammatical mistakes.

Spreading the Word

The title has since expanded from eight to 12 pages. “People are thirsty for freedom and for speaking up,” said Abidia. They sent copies with an aid ship to the port of Misrata, the main rebel-held city in western Libya.

Some are also putting their progressive principles into practice. At Berenice Post, when Shembesh and the other founders wanted to decide whether to keep on a group of intern reporters, they put the question to a staff vote.

“We’re starting to practice democracy, or what we know about democracy,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mariam Fam in Cairo at mfam1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net.

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