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Eastern Libyan broadcasters revel in new freedom

When Muammar Gaddafi demanded to make a speech in the middle of the night, engineers at Benghazi's state radio station were terrified. If a hastily arranged broadcast had problems it could cost them their lives.
/ Source: Reuters

When Muammar Gaddafi demanded to make a speech in the middle of the night, engineers at Benghazi's state radio station were terrified. If a hastily arranged broadcast had problems it could cost them their lives.

Since anti-Gaddafi forces shook off the "Brother Leader's" four-decade rule in the eastern third of the country, broadcasters in Libya's second city have been euphoric at the chance to say what they want for the first time.

The station -- renamed "Voice of Free Libya" by the broadcasters -- is now trying to counter remaining state media by spreading word of the revolt to their countrymen and playing songs about freedom to keep spirits high.

"They (Gaddafi's men) would call you by telephone and tell you 'Come now' at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. -- anytime. 'Come by car, leave your house'. If there were any problems in the studio, maybe you wouldn't see the light of day again," said Abubakr Boukhatallah, the station's chief engineer.

"We worked here with so much fear," he said. "Now there is freedom, I can say anything I want."

Posters advertising the aims of the "17th of February Revolution" line the walls of the station. Medium-wave transmitters, some dating back to the 1960s, now broadcast revolutionary "communiqués" and the songs of Egyptian icon Umm Kalthoum as far as Algeria and Syria.

The state has tried to jam the station's signal by broadcasting on the same frequency and has bombarded Libyans with propaganda denouncing the popular uprising, the broadcasters said.

"PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE"

"They have been fighting us using psychological warfare, sending text messages saying mercenaries have been released at night and are scattering across the city," said Mohamed Kabla, 30, a dentist who works in the impromptu media center set up in the burned-out state security building in central Benghazi.

"It has been hard to get the truth out to people. Now free radio is running for days. People are not scared anymore."

In a characteristically disjointed speech on Thursday, Gaddafi said anti-government protesters were fueled by milk and Nescafe spiked with hallucinogenic drugs and blamed demonstrations on al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

This time, the workers at the Benghazi station were free to ignore him.

"Gaddafi wants to say this is sedition, but he hasn't succeeded. He has tried to say people are getting money to rebels, but this uprising is from our hearts. We don't want him, we want freedom," said Hussein Ibrahim, an engineer at the Benghazi radio station.

Employees returned to the station in the early days of the uprising, which began in Benghazi, to find some of the studios torched. They hustled to install new equipment and get the transmitters running again.

Because there were no anchors around yet, an engineer read out the first message on "liberated" Libyan airwaves on February 21. Now, even the station's director, Abdullah Ibrahim, has returned after over a decade in retirement.

"The good people who were working here ... they transmitted the Voice of Free Libya to support the people. From that day when I heard this voice, I found myself here," he said in the old military compound which houses the station.

Ibrahim, 52, declined to say why he left the station more than ten years ago, saying it was "a very long story."

"We were not happy, you know," he said.