Libyan rebels focus on boosting communication networks

Rebels build a television studio at their media headquarters in Benghazi in eastern Libya. (Graeme Smith/The Globe and Mail/Graeme Smith/The Globe and Mail)

The line is faint, almost muffled by noise of wind sweeping the rooftop in Benghazi, but over the crackling satellite link comes the sound of weeping.

A mother has confirmed her daughter is alive. Like many others in eastern Libya, she had no way of communicating with the outside world, except with a borrowed satellite phone.

The rebels have lacked Internet and reliable phone connections for weeks, and still struggle to set up their own television station.

These shortcomings not only hurt their morale, as families suffer without news of their relatives; more vitally, fighters cannot talk to each other on the battlefield except with bullhorns and loudspeakers.

Many rebels have never seen their leaders give a public speech.

Those problems lend a sense of urgency to the teams of communications specialists now working in rebel enclaves, trying to build something that never existed in eastern Libya: free, open, uncensored media and telecommunications networks.

"We want to remind Gadhafi's people that he's a criminal and they should not support him," said Mohammed Fannoush, Libya's former chief librarian who now serves as director of communications for the rebellion.

For the moment, his best means of spreading his message are the rebel-controlled AM and FM radio transmitters. His teams of volunteers are still constructing their first television studio, laying down foam insulation and sketching set designs. They made an initial television broadcast almost four weeks ago, Mr. Fannoush said, but only managed to stay on-air for a few hours before Tripoli apparently persuaded their satellite provider to shut them down.

The rebels found a new satellite partner, however, and hope to start broadcasting again next week. They are recording video reports already, stockpiling material for their launch. One recent segment profiled a mother who lost two sons during the 1996 massacre in the notorious Abu Salim prison; two more of her sons were killed during recent fighting against loyalist troops. Another segment featured a family whose five sons were killed by an errant NATO bomb; it recorded their opinion that the foreign pilot should not be blamed for the accident. All of the bereaved relatives urged the rebels to continue fighting.

Such jingoistic fare will probably remain a staple of revolutionary media, as troops loyal to Colonel Moammar Gadhafi continue fighting to quell the uprising. But in their half-finished television studio, some rebel journalists dream of establishing a more independent broadcaster.

"We will be free to criticize the rebel council," said Walid Zaiani, 38, an executive producer of the new channel, Libya Alhurra TV. "We need people to know what is Libya: We're not just camels, deserts, and Gadhafi."

That thirst for free speech comes after decades of state control over all forms of electronic communication. Even now, weeks after the revolution started, rebels are still finding secret rooms and bunkers where Col. Gadhafi's agents monitored their fellow citizens. On the outskirts of Adjabiya, a local farmer recently showed The Globe and Mail a staircase leading into a half-destroyed maze of tunnels under the desert. Charred paperwork scattered on the floor indicated that the place had served as a listening post for military intelligence.

Piles of empty binder clips suggested that reams of paperwork had been removed before a large explosion ruined the facility.

Such posts were not always hidden in the desert. Engineers at the Benghazi office of Libya's largest mobile phone company, Libyana, worked side-by-side for years with plainclothes security officers who occupied a wing of their building sealed off with a heavy iron gate.

The security officers abandoned their posts during the first days of the revolution, burning paperwork and removing racks of sophisticated call-recording devices.

"You always had a bad feeling, that they could be listening to any call," said Khalid Jabbala, a transmission engineer whose office was located one floor below the monitoring centre. "Now you can say whatever you want. We can't believe it."

Tripoli continued intercepting the rebels' phone calls during the initial weeks of the revolution, as all signals ran via fibre-optic cables from the capital. Mr. Jabbala and his colleagues dusted off old equipment and set up their own network, shunting almost all cellphone calls in eastern Libya through a single fibre line.

The result has been a patchy, but more secure, means of communication.

People are finally losing their lifelong habit of referring obliquely to Col. Gadhafi when speaking on the phone, dropping the nicknames - "leader," "sheik," "fox" - they used in the past to avoid monitoring.

But the Libyana engineers are still struggling to deal with the volume of calls, because the other major mobile provider, Almadar Aljadeed Company, remains defunct, putting stress on the Libyana network. Nor have the engineers figured out how to install a billing system.

The technicians seem quietly proud, however, when asked about rumours that a truck carrying new network equipment had recently arrived in Benghazi. They declined to say what exactly was inside the 18-wheeler that rolled across the Egyptian border in recent days, but promised that the system would soon connect local mobile phones with international networks. Such connections would also provide a vital link between the rebel headquarters in Benghazi and the embattled city of Misrata, the biggest source of rebellion in western Libya, which remains cut off from most communications.

"It's a big secret," said Mohammed Khalifa, a Libyana engineer. "We're not finished. God willing, the system will work soon."