Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Muzzling the Truth

The death and rebirth of a Benghazi newspaper shows how Qaddafi crushed Libya's press for four decades - and how it's now roaring back.

554719_haqiqaresized5.jpg
554719_haqiqaresized5.jpg

BENGHAZI, Libya — "By the way, there are chemical weapons upstairs," said Samir Elhouni, near the end of a tour of the remains of al-Haqiqa ("The Truth"), a once-proud newspaper in Libya's second-largest city, now the stronghold of the rebels.

Upstairs we went. Hazmat suits and gas masks were piled against the walls of a dusty storage room. Metal crates with stark Russian lettering were scattered across the floor; inside were canisters containing a clear liquid and packets of a tightly packed, white powder. My guides said that this had previously been the recreation room for the printing press. They used to have a ping-pong table here.

Our new find, thankfully, did not turn out to be chemical weaponry. The Russian-made kits are actually used to decontaminate military units after a chemical attack. It's still dangerous stuff, particularly for the young children running around the decaying building. But more importantly, the equipment symbolizes how Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi transformed everything he touched in Benghazi, militarizing public and private life to perpetuate his 42-year rule.

BENGHAZI, Libya — "By the way, there are chemical weapons upstairs," said Samir Elhouni, near the end of a tour of the remains of al-Haqiqa ("The Truth"), a once-proud newspaper in Libya’s second-largest city, now the stronghold of the rebels.

Upstairs we went. Hazmat suits and gas masks were piled against the walls of a dusty storage room. Metal crates with stark Russian lettering were scattered across the floor; inside were canisters containing a clear liquid and packets of a tightly packed, white powder. My guides said that this had previously been the recreation room for the printing press. They used to have a ping-pong table here.

Our new find, thankfully, did not turn out to be chemical weaponry. The Russian-made kits are actually used to decontaminate military units after a chemical attack. It’s still dangerous stuff, particularly for the young children running around the decaying building. But more importantly, the equipment symbolizes how Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi transformed everything he touched in Benghazi, militarizing public and private life to perpetuate his 42-year rule.

Once upon a time, al-Haqiqa, which was run by three brothers from the Elhouni family, was the largest newspaper in Libya. Its final print run was 15,000 issues, each of which was sold for 0.3 piasters, or about a dime. In 1971, two years after Qaddafi took power in a military coup, the "Guide of the Revolution," as he styled himself, ordered the newspaper closed. In 1980, the regime seized the printing press itself, and the Elhouni family scattered. One brother fled to London, where he founded the pan-Arab daily al-Arab.

After Qaddafi’s rise, al-Haqiqa tried to carefully navigate the country’s shifting political terrain. The headline splashed across the Dec. 22, 1970, issue reports that "the colonel" received documents of accreditation from the new British ambassador. Another headline reported, "Moscow confirms its stand next to the Arab masses," while a third article explored the rising Zionist influence in the United States.

However, one confrontation with a young Qaddafi was likely enough to doom the paper. Before his 1969 coup, Qaddafi visited Benghazi and sat with Rashad Elhouni, one of the paper’s owners, and tried to convince him to print a military handbook sympathetic to his cause. Elhouni demurred, saying that he needed permission from a higher-up in the Libyan military. Qaddafi was not one to forgive and forget: After assuming power, he delivered a speech assailing al-Haqiqa, saying that it had delayed his revolution for two years.

Qaddafi’s 1980 resolution confiscating the press called for it to be seized by "the masses." In practice, however, it was seized by two military officers who ran the operation for their own profit. Mabrook al-Gweil and Hamed Salih, the two officers who managed the press under Qaddafi, established a semi-private enterprise out of what was nominally the state’s official property, cutting deals with other businesses to line their pockets.  The dusty sign for their "Global Printing and Financial Management Company" rested in a corner on the top floor of the press, near where we found the chemical decontaminants. Stacks of documents printed for The Great Man Made River Authority lined the building, a project that went well beyond the press’s post-revolution mandate to print manuals for the Libyan military.

The sons of al-Haqiqa‘s founders — Issam, Nabil, and Samir Elhouni — went their separate ways after the press, where they had been trained in the family craft, was taken. "Dad said, ‘Stay away from media,’" Issam told me. "’Be anything you want, be a cook, be a lawyer, but don’t get involved in media.’"Libya’s anti-Qaddafi revolt, however, has energized the brothers to disregard their fathers’ advice. They have all returned to Benghazi and are using the decades-old printing equipment in service of the cause. The press currently prints Libya’s tricolor flag — large versions on stiff cardboard paper, and tiny versions that are wrapped around cigarette lighters — as well as documents requested by the Transitional National Council, the interim body set up to represent the rebels.

It’s no small task to revive the operation. One of the two massive printing presses was dismantled and sold by Qaddafi’s military, leaving only a light-colored splotch on the floor where it used to sit. In the days of digital printers, Libya’s rebels are still using an offset printing process pioneered in the 1950s.

And then there’s the matter of money: The Elhouni brothers have yet to work out an accounting system for the work they do for Libya’s rebel council. That’s no small concern — Samir and Nabil are currently living in the printing press, establishing makeshift bedrooms in al-Haqiqa‘s former executive offices. "If it’s something expensive, they pay. If not, we do it for free," Samir said.

But despite these difficulties, the printing press, along with the rest of Benghazi’s media, is slowly coming back to life. Six newspapers are already being printed regularly across eastern Libya; the region also boasts two radio stations and two television stations. The largest is Benghazi News, a government-controlled newspaper under Qaddafi that received a makeover after his departure. It boasts more than 60 employees.

And the Elhouni brothers are planning to revive al-Haqiqa — just as it was. "If the last issue was 400, we will make the next one 401," Samir told me. It’s almost as if they’re fulfilling the dream of most residents of Benghazi — that Qaddafi’s long reign had never occurred.

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