To Report On Libya, Media Use An Informal Pipeline

March 1, 2011

Asma Khalid

With very few foreign reporters in Tripoli, NPR turned to eyewitness accounts to tell the story of violent unrest in the Libyan capital. And as NPR production assistant Asma Khalid writes, Libyan-Americans set up a Facebook group to help get information out of the capital.

As revolts shake up the Mideast, Arab-Americans are rallying support here at home.

First, Egyptian-Americans protested outside the White House; then, when the Mubarak regime crumbled, they celebrated outside the Egyptian Embassy, throwing parties at local mosques, treating friends to sweets after Friday prayers.

In many ways, the narrative of Egyptian-Americans is your typical expat story — the protests, the rallies, the celebrations.

But the story of Libyan-Americans is different. It's unlike anything I've witnessed before.

When protests broke out in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi, Libyan-Americans realized their homeland was going to be on information lockdown, and they were the only people who might be able to help reporters sift the facts from the fiction in this media vacuum.

So within days of the initial Feb. 17 uprising, a couple of housewives in the United States (who have never met each other face to face) created the Facebook group "Libya Outreach." It soon grew into a much larger enterprise that included Libyan activists with political contacts.

It has now become a sort of ad hoc online news bureau, where Libyan-Americans and expats are working around the clock to be those eyes and ears on the ground in lieu of reporters.

The group is gathering video footage, fact-checking initial reports and brokering interviews for American media. It's fielding requests from all kinds of media outlets — The Wall Street Journal, CBS, the Associated Press, and NPR.

For days, we've been hearing that Moammar Gadhafi's ironclad grip is slipping as a violent crackdown in Libya mounts. But unlike Tunisia or Egypt, there is no easy access for foreign reporters. And even though our reporters are now in the country, the trip to Tripoli is still too dangerous.

To make matters more complicated, many journalists don't have contacts on the ground in Tripoli because the city is like a media black hole, with hardly any news emerging from it.

But Libyan activist Hafed Al-Ghwell, who lives in Virginia, has 76 first cousins in that one city alone. He, like others with Libya Outreach, is loosely organizing and making phone trees back home to confirm facts.

For example, if Twitter reports indicate that Gadhafi's supporters are shooting people in Tripoli out of ambulances, the folks with Libya Outreach start calling back home to confirm where and if that's happening. They then provide those [phone?] numbers to those of us in the media who are interested in independently confirming the facts. Often Libyan cell phones are down, so we try Skype; other times, we hit redial a dozen times hoping one number will go through.

And that is, in fact, how we brought you our initial reports from Tripoli (here and here). The voices on our air came through contacts with Libya Outreach.

Another group called Feb17voices — named for the day the uprisings in Libya began — is doing similar work. Its members are calling contacts in Libya and tweeting the information at media outlets in real time.

Libyan-Americans realized they could provide sources that no one else could in this climate. Many of them are also dissidents who have despised the Gadhafi regime for decades, so they're happy to spread the word about the revolution.

As Kariman Elmuradi, one of the founders of Libya Outreach, told me, the hope at the end of the day is that by shining a media spotlight on the atrocities in Libya, the group will help limit the slaughter of Libyans back home — because, she says, Gadhafi is less likely to butcher people if he knows the world is watching. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.