- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 31, 2011

BENGHAZI, LibyaLibya’s rebels have launched their first homegrown satellite TV station, trying to counter the regime’s powerful media machine, which churns out Moammar Gadhafi’s message, depicts the opposition as terrorists and drums up patriotic fervor by beaming images of burning buildings hit by NATO strikes.

Libya Alhurra, or “Free Libya,” began broadcasting Monday night, a major step in the rebels’ attempts to get its message to the Libyan public, whose main source of information on the crisis roiling their country has been Col. Gadhafi’s TV and radio.

Thousands of Libyans waving flags gathered in a public square in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi to watch the first broadcasts on a large screen, celebrating a newfound freedom from 40 years of media oppression.

“This is freedom. I hope this shows the true color of Libyan people and their real faith in a new, free Libya,” station co-founder Zuhair Albarasi told the Associated Press from the square, which has become a rallying point for the revolt against Col. Gadhafi.

The channel was born out of an Internet video-streaming site launched by Mr. Albarasi and fellow Libyan businessman Mohammed al-Nabbous, who since the uprising began in mid-February searched for a way to show it to the world and to the Libyans themselves.

They started toting video cameras to protests, jerry-rigged a home satellite system and turned to the Web.

The danger of their effort was quickly made clear: Al-Nabbous, 27, was killed in Benghazi on March 19, shot under the right eye by a sniper as he filmed rebels armed with rocket launchers preparing to confront Col. Gadhafi’s tanks as they approached the city. Benghazi was saved that day by the first international airstrikes.

Still, their site continued, streaming video and audio reports direct from the battlefront, including audio of fighters and the sounds of whizzing bullets and whooshes of rocket launchers. It also hosts a chat room that draws Libyans inside and outside the country as well as sympathetic foreigners, in English and Arabic.

But in a country where Internet access has been sharply curtailed for much of the population, the channel - hosted on Livestream - remains limited in its reach.

That made it vital to reach satellite TV, which reaches an estimated 90 percent of the Libyan public. The Gulf nation of Qatar, which has been at the forefront of Arab nations assisting the rebels, hosts a pro-rebel Libyan station out of its capital, Doha.

But Mr. Albarasi and his colleagues in Benghazi were determined to launch one from their nation’s soil.

With the channel’s airing on Monday, Mr. Albarasi paid tribute to his lost friend. “The relaunch of Libya Alhurra is done in his name,” he said. “We are all looking forward to providing the people of Libya with a professional and independent service.”

Monday night’s launch ran late with a procession of proclamations from various rebel and community leaders that might have bored an audience in a free country.

But the thousands gathered at newly named Liberation Square remained spellbound, not budging until long after midnight to revel in the denunciations of Col. Gadhafi and promises of a better life in a free and democratic Libya.

“This is a victory for freedom of speech. For the first time we can express our opinion. This channel belongs to the Libyan people,” said Saiz Mahmoud, a 22-year-old mathematics student.

The rebels acknowledge that in the media war, Col. Gadhafi has the upper hand so far, with his state-run TV and radio reaching across the country, including in the rebel-held east and the opposition’s de facto capital, Benghazi.

“Gadhafi’s media are very effective,” said Mr. Albarasi. “We know because a lot of people still believe Gadhafi’s propaganda, even here in Benghazi.”

Earlier this month, for example, Col. Gadhafi’s state TV announced the rebels’ administration had received $3 billion to pay salaries, keep utilities running and fund the war. ” ‘Go and get your money,’ ” Mr. Albarasi quoted the announcer as saying.

Within hours, throngs of people converged on banks in Benghazi to try to collect money that wasn’t there.

The uprising against Col. Gadhafi’s four-decade rule began in mid-February. Col. Gadhafi’s military and militias hold the capital, Tripoli, and most areas in the west. The rebel forces are concentrated in the east, with Benghazi as their center, but have been fighting to hold high ridges in a western mountain range as well as the port of Misrata in the west.

Before the uprising, few bothered to watch the several state-run satellite TV stations, which showed only the daily activities of “brother leader” Col. Gadhafi, leavened by badly produced Libyan-made dramas.

But now they are drawing audiences with images of buildings in the capital set ablaze by NATO airstrikes and appeals to Libyan patriotism to stand together against “the Crusaders,” as Col. Gadhafi calls the Western coalition members.

On another front, the rebel administration is fighting to get Col. Gadhafi’s channels off the air, arguing they are spreading hatred and inciting violence. The administration has appealed to Egypt-based distributor Nilesat to hand them Col. Gadhafi’s frequencies. Nilesat head Ahmed Anis said they’re a commercial company and such demands should be taken to Egypt’s Foreign Ministry.

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