There’s a not-so secret password that gets foreign journalists coming from Egypt into Libya through customs and immigration without showing passports and through the neighborhood militia checkpoints on the coastal road from Tobruk west to Benghazi. Flash the “Victory” sign with two fingers, and as long as you are in Free Libya, the eastern half of the country controlled by the democratic opposition to the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and you’ll get saluted right back and then hurried along your way.
Opposition supporters in eastern Libya are making every effort to battle the tight controls that the government has put upon information coming out of Libya, claiming that the media blackout hides the crimes and killings the government has committed against its own people. From taxi drivers offering free rides, and average citizens offering food and lodging, to the new revolutionary committees setting up press centers, Libyans have welcomed the international media with open arms, and almost everyone has a message they want to get out to the world. “You can’t believe how happy I am to meet an American reporter,” says Omar, an airline pilot from Benghazi, who took me to his home so I could have a warm place to write, made me lunch and played me country-western music. “The government was massacring us and there was no one here to see,” he says.
After the uprising against the Gaddafi regime started, the government shut down access to the Internet, blocked international phone calls out of the country, jammed satellite phone signals, and even forced people leaving the country from the western border crossings to Tunisia to erase their photographs and mobile phone videos of the protests. On Friday, the regime flew a very small number of journalists into the capital city Tripoli, located in western Libya and still the center of government’s military and security apparatus, for a brief one day-long tour of the city. One journalist reported being assaulted by a pro-Gaddafi street marcher, who quickly apologized. The government also declared that any journalist inside the country not on the approved tour would be considered to be a member of al-Qaeda.
But in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city and the epicenter of the uprising, the new revolutionary government is treating journalists not like terrorists but as brothers-in-arms. English-speaking volunteer translators have thronged to a new media center housed in the soot-stained former appeals court building, which days ago had been the scene of a battle between opposition supporters and the remnants of Gaddafi’s security forces in Benghazi. Inside, young men have set up computer workstations to make press passes for anyone who shows a foreign passport. They are also designing anti-Gaddafi posters and caricatures, and preparing to distribute much more sobering images depicting what they say is evidence of crimes against humanity by the Gaddafi government.
On Friday, at the Benghazi revolutionary committee’s first press conference, Peter Bouckert, the emergencies director of Human Rights Watch who is part of a two-person team in the city, said that the opposition’s claims are justified. He estimates that at least 300 people died violently in Benghazi during the uprising, based on actual body counts from hospitals and morgues. “It’s a very conservative figure, and it’s going to rise as the investigation continues,” he said. “What happened here was much more serious than what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. We are talking about the government using live ammunition in a systemic campaign against peaceful demonstrations. There’s also pretty clear evidence of the use of heavy weapons including anti-aircraft guns, which were turned against the people. The results were pretty horrific.”
Meanwhile, the city’s new government — led by a 13 member council of lawyers, judges and professors — wanted to reassure the world that the uprising was committed to democratic principles and that there would be no need for foreign military intervention. What Libya needs, said Hafiz Ghoga, the council’s spokesman, was short-term humanitarian assistance, an international freeze on assets belonging to the Gaddafi family, and a no-flight zone to keep the whatever’s left of the air force from turning on the people. “There is no mess in Libya except where the regime is still in power,” said Ghoga.
But besides Tripoli, one critical area that remains in the control of the regime is Sert, Gaddafi’s hometown, located about midway on the 700 mile costal road from Benghazi to Tripoli. Because Sert may be among the last of Gaddafi strongholds to fall, and because the only alternative land route from Benghazi to Tripoli winds for days through the Sahara desert, it may be sometime before most of the international press can witness whatever desperate battles are occurring between the government and the opposition in the capital. So far, only the New York Times has a reporter sending dispatches out of the capital. But Libya’s revolutionary volunteers will no doubt do their best to get us there, as Omar, my airline pilot host, promised me. “As soon as the airports open, I’ll fly you to Tripoli myself,” he says.