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Journalist's Tweets Give Voice to Libya Uprisings
|by Juhie Bhatia|
Sarah Abdurrahman is getting to the point where she's scared to make calls to Libya. She worries about endangering the lives of the six to 12 people she calls there regularly or, worse, that they might already be dead.
Since protests calling for the end of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's 40-plus year regime began in mid-February, and the ensuing conflict, Abdurrahman, 27, has been posting her contacts' accounts on Twitter, the social networking service that allows short text messages called tweets to be sent to followers.
But last week she discovered that one of her contacts in eastern Libya had been killed. He was her first confirmed lost source. A Libyan American, like Abdurrahman, he'd had the option to leave Libya when the fighting began but wanted to stay.
Abdurrahman's Twitter feed, called Feb 17 Voices, posted an audio clip of her contact speaking the night before his death. The day she found out about the loss, one tweet read:
"Muhannad, 20y/o killed in #Brega. Dual US/Libyan citizen, former boy scout. Father: he refused US Cit. evac. to fight for his country #Libya"
Abdurrahman is one of a small group, including her husband and some people she's never met, who have been posting daily accounts - in 140 characters or fewer - to the Feb 17 Voices Twitter feed, named for the designated "Day of Rage" on February 17 when protests against Gadhafi were supposed to have started. Tweets include written and audio eyewitness testimonies and translations of breaking news from Al Jazeera Arabic to help fill in gaps of what's happening on the ground.
"Libya is incredibly closed off, it's incredibly brutal, it's not comparable to Egypt or Tunisia in terms of how people can gather and protest. We just had to make sure that if something did happen that we were ready to get the news out," Abdurrahman says, while sipping a cappuccino in an East Village café. A black-and-white headscarf frames her round face.
"The people we're talking to, they're all incredibly brave. They understand that this is their weapon. They may not be able to go out and fight the people who are killing them in the streets, but they can at least get the information out," she says.
About a week after the uprising began in Libya, foreign journalists started to enter the country. They have been staking out in Tripoli and Benghazi since, sending regular news reports, photos and satellite images of the U.N.-approved military intervention led by France, England and the United States.
But in the early days of the uprising the scarcity of foreign media in Libya, due to press restrictions, meant the Feb 17 Voices Twitter feed was one of the first to post first-hand testimonies, says Abdurrahman. Libya was ranked 160th out of 178 countries in the 2010 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
One widely played audio account from that time is by a woman in Tripoli – about a third of their contacts are women – describing how people were being killed wherever they were in the streets and making weapons out of anything found at home. "We heard shootings going on non-stop earlier," the woman says in the audio clip. "Non-stop. Everything seems to be quiet now but they said it's getting worse. They're just killing people in the streets."
Abdurrahman had hoped the Libyan uprising would quickly prevail, following the example of the relatively brief toppling of the governments of Tunisia and Egypt. But it's been weeks of violence.
Pro-government forces continue to fight to recapture rebel-held towns, including Libya's second biggest city Benghazi. According to a statement issued by Human Rights Watch, since the uprising began it has documented cases in which government forces opened fire on peaceful protesters and seen the arbitrary arrest and enforced disappearance of scores of people.
On March 17 the United Nations Security Council voted to authorise a no-fly zone and other military action to protect civilians in Libya, enabling nations to intervene in the conflict. Following the U.N.'s actions, Feb 17 Voices sent almost two dozen tweets on the vote. Several thousand Libyan women had marched in Benghazi the previous weekend to demand such a no-fly zone to prevent the bombing of rebels, according to the AFP.
Shortly after the U.N. vote Libya said it would call an immediate cease-fire, but government forces have continued to fight. In response, the United States and its allies have launched air strikes to secure the no-fly zone, targeting Gadhafi's military infrastructure.
Abdurrahman has been watching the situation closely. She works on the Feb 17 Voices project around her job as a producer for On the Media radio show for WNYC, a New York affiliate of National Public Radio. She started the Twitter feed after being approached by John Scott-Railton, a doctoral student in urban planning at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), who started and runs a similar feed called Jan25 Voices about Egypt's uprisings, and now also contributes to Feb 17 Voices. He says as lead contributor to Feb 17 Voices, Abdurrahman's work is significant.
"The quality and impact of her recordings of calls are a testament to her professionalism and commitment to the struggle of the Libyan people," believes Scott-Railton, who began contacting his many friends and close ties in Egypt to create Jan25 Voices in response to the Internet being shut off there. "Truly, Feb 17 Voices would not have been successful without her commitment," he adds.
Abdurrahman made her first calls to Libya the same weekend she attended a protest in Washington, D.C., in solidarity with Libyan revolutionaries. After the protest, up to 30 friends and family members spontaneously gathered at her parents' house in the D.C. area, all on their laptops seeking and sending information on Libya. Abdurrahman says it looked like a newsroom, with two TV sets blasting Al Jazeera and a laptop connected to CNN.
The Feb 17 Voices Twitter feed now has over 5,600 followers and her group works to ensure the authenticity of their tweets, trying to only post things they've heard from multiple unconnected people. Their Twitter feed has been used by Al Jazeera English and various news reporting blogs.
While foreign media coverage of Libya is constant now, Abdurrahman says journalists there remain limited in their sources and are being threatened and detained. (Four ‘New York Times’ journalists who were held for nearly a week by pro-Gadhafi forces were released Monday; the Committee to Protect Journalists reports 13 other journalists are either missing or in Libyan government custody.) She says their Twitter feed is still able to provide on-the-ground accounts from within the turmoil.
Abdurrahman was born in Seattle to Libyan-born parents who were also dissidents opposing Gadhafi. Her father hasn't been back to Libya since around 1980. Abdurrahman went on to study film as an undergrad and then earned a graduate degree in media studies, both at the University of Texas at Austin.
Her journalism training started when she moved to Boston in 2008 to intern and then freelance at WBUR, Boston's NPR member station. In December she moved to New York City to start her new job at WNYC.
As the conflict in Libya crosses the one-month mark, Abdurrahman believes the challenge now is to keep people interested. "Our main hope is just that people don't lose steam. I know news cycles get old and people don't want to follow the same story after a few weeks," she says. "But every single person that is dying, that's new, that's advancing the story. And it needs to still be told."
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