Tobruk, Libya — Before going live for the first time since this eastern Libyan city broke free from Moammar Gadhafi's rule last week, staff members of the local radio station took a moment to calm their nerves.
They agreed to speak in sober and reassuring tones, but Anwar Sherif, the station's main announcer, couldn't contain himself once he took the microphone to deliver the city's first free broadcast in 42 years.
“There was a fear barrier broken that day. I sounded sentimental, even hysterical,” Sherif, 36, recalled Thursday. “We let loose all the words we could never say. I said, 'Down with the tyrant!' and then all the other suppressed words came spilling out.”
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Tobruk's Radio Free Libya was among the first three stations in the country to offer uncensored updates on the revolt against Gadhafi's regime, which still controls the capital, Tripoli, and most of the western part of this restive North African nation.
Once supervised by in-house intelligence agents who had the final say over every program, the radio station is now the mouthpiece of anti-government rebels who have few other conduits to the masses because the old state-run newspapers have stopped publishing, and the regime has shut down the Internet and most cell-phone service throughout the country.
A month ago, the most controversial topic on air was the locals' frustration over the lack of promised development projects, residents now call in to ask where they can donate food and medical supplies — their contributions to the struggle to unseat Gadhafi.
On Thursday, Radio Free Libya aired security updates, along with pleas to stand in solidarity with the besieged people of the capital, Tripoli. Another program took aim at price gouging, with the announcer declaring that any driver or merchant who overcharged people because of the crisis “has no sense of patriotism.”
The imam of the city's biggest mosque issued a plea through the station for young men in the area to return all the heavy weapons they'd seized in clashes with security forces. He said Libyans were grateful to the youth for their bravery, and urged prayers for the dead.
“I hail the people who were martyred in this revolution, and may God give them mercy,” the imam said over the crackly airwaves. “Paradise awaits all those who received bullets in their chests.”
This sudden, free flow of information is still hard to absorb for the radio station's 32-person staff, which saved the most vital equipment only hours before the station's old headquarters was torched on Feb. 18. They began broadcasting again Sunday in a ramshackle building near a communications tower, the location of which they don't want revealed in case of government retaliation.
“Radio Free Libya” is scribbled in black marker on the front door. The studio is a dingy room furnished with only a soundboard and a desk for the microphones. Nobody's receiving a salary anymore. But for the journalists who no longer have to stick to Gadhafi's party line, this new space is a laboratory for their long-crushed dreams.
“We're going to be the fourth estate,” said Khaled Mahmoud, 36, an announcer. “Before Feb. 17, it was a one-sided game. But we will build a free media that broadcasts events in a neutral, objective way.”
Before the uprising, the university-educated, politically astute staff members said they were stifled by the regime's strict edicts on suitable programming. That mostly meant praise for Gadhafi and his family interspersed with a smattering of folkloric music and cultural shows. When the seeds of the uprising began a month ago, around the time of similar revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, the government banned all live broadcasts in case a dissident announcer attacked Gadhafi on air.
“The intelligence officers would say, 'You have to go with the policy of the country, and don't ever criticize the regime,'” said programming coordinator Abdullah Idris, 42. “They were in our building, watching everything.”
When protests in the downtown square turned into violent clashes with the security forces on Feb. 17, the station's employees immediately sided with the demonstrators. The opposition, backed by army defectors, overwhelmed Gadhafi's forces that day, and the old radio format ended overnight.
The station was off the air only one day before returning as Radio Free Libya. The staff members, who come from six of the area's most prominent tribes, said their goal is to create a station that promotes national unity and gives voice to the grievances of the people. And they said they wouldn't go easy on whatever government emerges from the current turmoil.
“Libya will surprise the whole world with our media,” said Saleh Wafi, 42, a producer. “We are cultured and educated. All we lacked was freedom.”