Writer and editor

Inside the Doha-based Libya TV

Added on by Anealla Safdar.

From a discreet location in Doha, 60 volunteers are working long hours to produce Libya TV, a channel aiming to be the antidote to state controlled media.

In three months since the launch, they have seen little of the city besides their three-storey office, where they spend at least 12 hours every day, or their hotel rooms.

They are a mixture of Libyans who fled the country and those in the diaspora. Some are not of Libyan descent at all, but fuelled with the same commitment to giving the opposition a voice.

Another 20 volunteers are in Libya, risking their lives to tell the stories from the ground. Conditions are, producers say, especially tough close to the Tunisian border.

The Doha headquarters has been threatened (“Gaddafi’s people are everywhere,” one staffer says), employees in Libya have been targeted and volunteers are frightened their families might be attacked if they are found to be working for the rebel station.

Setting up

Mahmud Shammam, spokesman for the opposition National Transition Council (NTC) and renowned Libyan journalist, founded Libya TV, around a month after the ‘day of rage’ — February 17.

Contrary to previous media reports which said businessmen from the diaspora fund the channel, it is the Qatari government hosting and paying for the operation.

Staffs from the neighbouring station, Al Rayyan, regularly lend their expertise with technical equipment and their space.

Shammam recruited the initial team of 19 volunteers through an advert which he posted on his Facebook page, from which he received over 200 CVs.

Editorially independent, the station launched after a manic six days of preparation in March with just three hours of fresh coverage a day.

That quickly doubled and now stands at 12 hours. Programmes are repeated but the news is not. Hopes are high to broadcast live 24-hours a day in the near future.

“He (Shammam) had a plan and we worked around the clock as soon as we arrived,” said Dina, who is now the station's public relations manager, after a stint on programme production.

“When I left America, I packed for two weeks. I thought it would be a nice little project to work on. None of us thought this conflict would go on as long as it has.”

Relocation

In a few months’ time, there are two options for relocation.If Gaddafi does not leave, there are plans to move to Benghazi, the provisional capital of the NTC. If he does, The station will move to Tripoli.

“I’m going with them,” said producer Lina, decidedly. She is twenty-something, of Libyan descent and left her job in Jordan to help televise the revolution.

“We all are. We're all wondering if it's safe but there are a lot of people in Libya who are at risk. We're not any different from them. This is a big opportunity for me to help.”

The channel's content is mostly Arabic and there is a news programme in Amazigh, or Berber language. High profile guests so far have included Senator John Mccain, who filmed an interview in Doha, NATO officials and Martin Day, the British government's Arabic spokesperson.

The English language website occasionally features video interviews by journalist Abeer Maghribi, who was formally a marketing manager. Looking ahead, English programmes will be shown on the satellite station to counter a 40-year old ban on the language Gadaffi has enforced.

The media war

Being born out of a revolution means the channel cannot escape the label of being a propaganda tool. The staffers readily embrace that they are not only propaganda participants, but soldiers.

“It’s absolutely all propaganda,” said Dina. “It has to be at this point.” "It's just a shame that propaganda has a negative connotation. It's a media war,” said Seraj, the administration manager.

“The Gaddafi regime is waging a war in the realm of media and he's using psychological tactics. The revolutionaries have to do the same thing. In our case of propaganda, we're just telling the truth.” The two combatants, state television and this free media outlet, regularly go to war, denouncing one another's coverage of certain developments on air.

Coming from state television themselves, some of the staff have witnessed the lengths their former employer went to promote a twisted version of events.

“When the revolution began, I knew I wanted to leave,” said Abdul-Latif, who is now a presenter at Libya TV. “But, I had to continue to work with the channel, the regime, until I completed my escape plan. I saw all of the inner workings of the station, the fabrication, the lies.”

He first appeared on Libya TV as a guest. “When I worked for state TV, I felt like I was helping the killing. It really wore on me, and I felt like I was a fake journalist. Being able to come here and get that off your chest is life changing."

Seraj, a Libyan, left Switzerland to join the channel. He said Libya TV's website had 470,000 visits last month and 70,000 downloaded the iPhone application over a three week period.

No official viewing figures are available but, he explained, "what we do know is that anytime you call someone in Libya, they are watching it, even in the South and in the refugee camps. We're just reflecting Libya using our tools. We're trying to emphasise exactly what's happening on a humanitarian level. We don't make up the news. We're just telling people what's going on."

In one of the shows filmed in the slick basement studio, Shahrazad Kablan takes phone calls from Libya, including some angry messages from those who support Gaddafi. Most are from those fighting against the regime, however.

"The aim is to provide support for the people back home. We take their voices and share it with the world," said Shahrazad, an expatriate Libyan who had been teaching English in America before.

“Sometimes I cry on air, like when an older lady called in who had lost her son. She came on and was praying to God. She was a mother figure and nicknamed herself ‘the revolutionary's mum’.”

A slice of heaven

Amid the tears, cloudy looking future and intense work environment, there are mild fears of outstaying one's welcome among the team and inevitably, some will not be able to remain unpaid for much longer.

For now though, there is plenty of passion to fuel them further, unwavering support from Qatar, the first Arab country to recognise the opposition and there is always the symbolic place for respite, a majils-styled canteen in which the staff from both the Qatari and Libyan channels dine.

Among the Libya TV crowd, it's known as a ‘slice of heaven.’

Published on the Doha Centre for Media Freedom website on 26th June, 2011