Thursday, 7 February 2019

From my archive: Radio in the 2011 Libyan civil war

I wrote the article below in early September 2011, while the Libyan civil war was still in progress and Muammar Gaddafi was still alive. An edited version was published in the 2012 edition of the World Radio TV Handbook under the title Radio and the Arab Spring.

Here is some background that may be useful for the modern reader.

The Tunisian and Egyptian presidents were overthrown in January and February 2011 respectively in events that were part of what would become known as the Arab Spring.

In Libya, after weeks of public unrest, the revolt against Gaddafi began in earnest on 17 February 2011. 

Within days, insurgent forces had captured a number of the Gaddafi regime’s radio stations and were using them to air broadcasts under the name Voice of Free Libya.

NATO forces joined the conflict in March. Tripoli fell to the rebels in August. Gaddafi was eventually captured and killed in October.

Voice of Free Libya aired over three powerful AM transmitters

Libyan rebel radio

"From the slopes of the great Green Mountain, this is the Voice of Free Libya radio!" 

These words, broadcast over a powerful (500-kilowatt) mediumwave (AM) transmitter captured by rebels in early 2011, seemed to echo dramatic radio announcements from Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and various places since. 

In fact, radio had a very limited role in most of the Arab uprisings. Libya was a special case. 

Within days of the start of the uprising in mid-February, rebels in eastern Libya had seized the government's powerful AM transmitters in El Beida (which aired the announcement above) and Benghazi (on 1125 and 675 kHz respectively), and were using them effectively. The only hiccup came when the radio studios in Benghazi were destroyed in the initial confusion of the uprising and an improvised one had to be set up before broadcasts could start. 

In the west of the country, rebels quickly took over the local radio station in Libya's third city, Misrata, but initially only aired on FM. Use of the 500-kW AM transmitter in Misrata began in March, providing a signal on 1449 kHz that could be heard after dark across much of Europe. Later, the Benghazi and Misrata Voice of Free Libya stations became audible worldwide via live internet streams. 

FM on, but shortwave off

Rebel-controlled FM stations sprang into life in at least six other Libyan towns. 

Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital, became a media hub for the opposition. Outlets launched there included the official Voice of Free Benghazi, youth station Shabab Libya FM, English-language Tribute FM, and Libya FM (relaying a satellite channel set up by musician Hamid El Shaeri). 

Also on Benghazi's FM dial were relays of the audio streams of various TV channels including Qatar-based opposition Libya al-Ahrar and pan-Arab Al-Jazeera, along with a relay of BBC Arabic radio. 

Libya FM was also relayed by rebel-controlled FM stations in other parts of the country.

An announcer at the rebels' Radio Free Nalut (98.2 FM) in western Libya in July 2011
Photo credit: Mohamed Madi

Libya was once both a source and a target for a number of clandestine shortwave broadcasts. An exiled opposition radio, Sawt al-Amal (Voice of Hope), operated until 2006. But with the rebels of 2011 running so many stations inside the country, there was no need for such broadcasts from transmitters abroad. 

After the rebels captured Tripoli, they launched their own Radio Libya on former Gaddafi-controlled transmitters in the city (1053 AM and 96.6 FM). 

Low priority

Earlier, the Gaddafi government's use of radio had been hampered by the rebels' capture of much of its AM and FM transmitter network. It tried to mitigate this by using a single shortwave transmitter to beam its domestic service to rebel-controlled territory, though it's unclear whether this had any audience. 

Radio enthusiasts outside Libya were disappointed with the lacklustre and irregular output of the government's Voice of Africa shortwave station, mostly made up of recorded material unrelated to the news of the day. 

The government invested much more effort in its TV broadcasts and was surprisingly successful in maintaining both programming and transmissions, despite NATO air strikes and pressure on satellite operators to drop them. 

Two pieces of evidence showed the lack of importance the Gaddafi authorities placed on radio: they used some of their remaining radio transmitters simply to relay the audio channel of state TV, and they were happy to drop satellite distribution of most of their radio networks. 

Little jamming of radio, much more of TV

Unlike in Iraq in 1991 and 2003, and Afghanistan in 2001, no special Western radio broadcasts were aimed at Libyan civilians. NATO used shortwave radio for psychological warfare transmissions targeting the military, but although these caught the interest of curious enthusiasts outside Libya, I saw no evidence that they had an impact on their intended audience inside the country. However, they did attract jamming. No Libyan jamming of other foreign radio broadcasts was confirmed during the crisis.

In contrast, Gaddafi's media campaigned vigorously against Al-Jazeera TV, denouncing it as the "Khanzeera" (Arabic for "pig") channel. Jamming of Al-Jazeera's satellite signals in January and February was blamed on Tripoli. Al-Jazeera said the interference had been traced to a building used by the Libyan intelligence service. 

In return, Libyan state TV's satellite signals were intermittently jammed - perpetrator unknown.

Egypt and Tunisia

In neighbouring Egypt, the authorities also sought to halt the unrest by disrupting Al-Jazeera's operations. They also cut off the country from the global internet for more than five days in late January. However, they do not seem to have regarded foreign terrestrial radio broadcasts as a threat as no jamming of them was reported. 

As with its Libyan counterpart, the government's Radio Cairo external service, a disappointment to listeners for years because of the poor technical quality of its shortwave signals, was of little worth for those seeking news from Egypt. 

One of Libya's other Arab neighbours, Tunisia, saw some clandestine radio activity during its revolution, though this was online, rather than over-the-air, broadcasting by stations such as Radio Kalima (Dignity). The key news source in the early days of the Tunisian unrest was Al-Jazeera TV, in particular its dedicated North African evening news programme "Maghreb Harvest".

Conclusions: Radio and the Arab Spring

  • TV and the internet have almost entirely replaced radio as Arab audiences' preferred source of information.
  • But particular circumstances in Libya allowed the rebels there to make good use of radio.
  • Elsewhere, opposition groups used social media and satellite TV to get their message across.
  • Arab governments also fought their media battles online and on TV. They paid little attention to radio, either offensively (their own broadcasts) or defensively (jamming).
  • There was little evidence that shortwave radio had any impact.
  • In a year when a number of major international radio broadcasters announced substantial cuts, none significantly expanded their shortwave operations in response to the crises.
The main conclusion from the historic events in these countries in 2011 is that, 15 years after the launch of Al-Jazeeraradio has been replaced by satellite TV and the internet as the preferred source of information for most Arab audiences.

© 2011 and 2019. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and the World Radio TV Handbook.

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