Arab Women in Revolution: Reports from the Ground

Part: 15

Journalist's Tweets Give Voice to Libya Uprisings

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sarah Abdurrahman, a 27-year-old U.S. radio producer, started a Twitter feed based on local contacts in Libya. In the early days of the uprising, when foreign media was mainly absent, it provided a crucial stream of communication.



NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--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.

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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 Feb. 17 when protests against Gadhafi were supposed to start. 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 said while sipping a cappuccino in an East Village café. A black-and-white headscarf framed her round face.

'This is Their Weapon'

"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 said.

About a week after the uprising began in Libya, foreign journalists started to enter the country. They have been staked 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, said 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 said 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. Human Rights Watch said in a statement last week that 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.

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