The Revolution Will Soon Be Televised

Free Libya gets its own satellite channel, hosted by -- you guessed it -- Qatar.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

DOHA, Qatar—For the first time in its history, Libya is getting its own independent satellite channel.

A group of Libyans from abroad and inside the country is setting up the new station to broadcast news and commentary about Libya for a Libyan audience, with the aim of countering Libyan state propaganda and promoting dialogue about the country’s future after Muammar al-Qaddafi, the brutal leader whose four-plus decades in power appear to be drawing to a rapid close.

The channel, to be called simply Libya TV, launches this week in Doha after less than two weeks of hurried preparation. Its founder is the avuncular Mahmud Shammam, a well-known Libyan expatriate journalist who edits Foreign Policy‘s Arabic edition.

Libya TV’s initial team of 19 young staffers was assembled partly over Facebook, Shammam says. In mid-March, he put out a call for volunteers on his page and immediately got more than 200 requests to join. "One woman even said her life would mean nothing if she did not participate," Shammam told me. Another new staffer left Ajdabiya, an eastern city that until the last few days was occupied by Qaddafi’s fighters, to join the network in Doha. The channel had to buy him a new set of clothes when he arrived.

Shammam, a staunch secularist, has long been an outspoken critic of Qaddafi’s regime, dating back to his days as a student activist at Michigan State University, where he squared off against Qaddafi supporters led by Musa Kusa, now the regime’s foreign minister and a key member of its inner circle. ("He’s not stupid," Shammam says of Kusa. "He knows the regime is collapsing.")

Returning home to Libya after college, Shammam got into trouble after participating in the January 1976 student demonstrations in Benghazi, and left the country in March of that year, never to return. He has spent the years since as a journalist and activist, with stints at a number of different outlets, including nearly 10 years at the helm of Newsweek‘s Arabic edition. He’s a frequent guest on Al Jazeera, where he was a board member for four years, and is close to Libyan opposition leaders both in and outside the country.

For the first month, Shammam hopes to broadcast four hours of original programming each day, including a 20-minute news bulletin and a half-hour talk show, and then extend it thereafter. He is keen to give Libya’s young people, who have been at the forefront of the uprising, a prominent voice at the station. "The youth who liberate Libya can run it," he says. "If we don’t let them take responsibility now, we’re going to be in trouble."

According to Mohamed al-Akari, the new station’s Tripoli-born manager, Libya TV has set up a studio in Benghazi and another in London, in addition to its headquarters in Doha, and has correspondents throughout Libya.

While editorially independent, the channel could prove an important outlet for the revolutionaries, especially if the drama of the uprising fades and the conversation shifts to less visually gripping topics like constitutional reform, political development, and education. International coverage of Tunisia and Egypt has dropped precipitously in the wake of the respective departures of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak.

In the early days of the uprising, Libyans set up the National Transitional Council (NTC), a body describing itself as "the political face of the revolution." The purpose of the council, a senior NTC representative told me, was to combat the regime’s message that a post-Qaddafi Libya would mean chaos, tribalism, and civil war, as well as to "liberate our country, to speak to the world in one voice, and to mobilize support for the resistance."

One of the key challenges of a post-Qaddafi Libya will be combating the years of "indoctrination" Libyan children faced, he told me, noting the wide gulf between a highly educated, worldly diaspora that is eager to help rebuild the country and a bruised, battered population inside Libya that has known only Qaddafi for 42 years.

"We need a heavy dosage of dialogue," says Shammam, speaking for the new satellite channel. "We want Libyans to think about the future: the rule of law, civil society, a new constitution. We want to promote a culture of forgiving."

Libya TV is being funded primarily by donations from Libyan businessmen abroad, including one $250,000 contribution from a wealthy Libyan donor in Britain. The state of Qatar, in addition to agreeing to host the network on its soil, has turned over the facilities and technical staff of Al-Rayyan, a local channel focused on cultural programming.

Qatar — a tiny, oil-and-gas rich monarchy in the Persian Gulf — has emerged as an unlikely benefactor for the rebels, donating emergency relief supplies and satellite phones, lobbying for a no-fly zone, and even openly participating in it. On Sunday, the rebels announced that Qatar plans to buy and re-export oil produced in eastern Libya — a potentially vital source of cash for the nascent government.

Qatar’s apparent ardor for intervention in Libya stems in part from deep concern for Libyan civilians. As the prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, put it in a press conference in late February, as Qaddafi began resorting to horrific violence to try to put down the revolt, "Qatar is extremely pained by what is going on in Libya. We are with its people who are suffering." Later, when Qatar announced its support for military action, the prime minister explained the country’s motivation as simply, "How can we stop the bloodshed?"

But Qatar’s ties to Libya run surprisingly deep: The Qatari emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, made close Libyan friends during his time studying in Britain, while the father of his second wife, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Misned, lived and worked in Libya during his political exile in the 1970s.

Nor is there any love lost between the emir and Qaddafi, who in recent weeks has hurled furious invective at Qatar and its satellite channel, Al Jazeera, which has been firmly on the side of the revolutionaries. In an interview in February with Al-Sharq al-Awsat, the pan-Arab daily, the Libyan leader’s son Seif al-Islam said outright, "Screw Qatar and Al Jazeera." Such words — shocking to see in print in the Arab world — were backed up with deadly force when Qaddafi’s men killed Al Jazeera cameraman Ali Hassan al-Jaber, a Qatari whose death was widely mourned here and whose funeral the emir attended personally.

Last year, at a regional summit, Qaddafi made a crude joke about the bulky Qatari leader being "better than me at filling a void" and cackled maniacally afterwards, to the obvious embarrassment of the Libyan diplomats around him. On Monday, Qatar became the first Arab state to recognize the NTC as the "sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people." With the allied bombing taking a punishing toll and with Qaddafi down to his few remaining strongholds, and Libya TV about to launch, it seems the emir is getting the last laugh.

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