Renee Black: Death of a Libyan citizen journalist

The importance of social media has taken on a new dimension in the course of my research on how these tools are being used to impact on political authority in nondemocratic regimes. I have known full well—given the many stories of citizens being targeted for activism and protest—that it was only a matter of time before one of my sources would be targeted. I have suspected for some time that several of my tweeps in Libya have been killed, after they suddenly stop posting following ominous messages, but not actually knowing them, it has been impossible to find out definitively. This past weekend, that changed.

When the Libyan uprising began on February 17, a 28-year-old Libyan Oxford graduate named Mohammed Nabbous stepped up to play a key role in helping to tell the world what was happening in Libya. Twitter helped to connect me to Mo, as he was commonly known, and to Libya Alhurra TV, a private station that he created and broadcast through Livestream using proxy servers, satellites, and other technology to circumvent Internet blocks. He allowed myself and many others to have a window into his world so we could see what was happening on the ground in Benghazi. As the days and weeks went by, he became a source for Al Jazeera, CBC, and other news stations as well as a key symbol of the resistance movement.

On the night of March 18, when I signed in to hear the latest news on the siege of Benghazi, Mo’s most recent video was taking viewers on a tour of a residential neighborhood called Hai al Dollar, where Gaddafi’s forces had continued to attack since declaring a ceasefire. He showed burnt-out cars, the blood-stained pillows of two children who had been killed by a blast, bullet-riddled walls covering homes, blown-out houses, and much more. As he walked from home to home, he would greet locals in Arabic, get their stories, and then tell us in English what had happened.

At one point, Mo’s pregnant wife Perdita, who was not with him at the time, came onto the chat and connected the us directly to Mo’s cellphone. At that moment, he was walking around another residential quarter of Benghazi and filming more scenes of destruction, while describing to those of us listening just what he was seeing.

Quite suddenly, we found ourselves listening in horror as gunfire erupted out of the blue. Mo stayed on the phone and was describing what was happened while urgently trying to get away. When the phone connection went dead a moment later, the chat room went wild as everyone desperately tried figure out what had just happened, hoping, against all odds, that Mo was ok. He wasn’t. I stayed up for some time after hoping to hear more, but eventually fell asleep.

The next day, Mo’s crying wife, Perdita posted an audio message confirming his death and calling on Libyans to keep the station going and make sure that his death was not in vain. We know very little about the exact circumstances of his death, except that he was killed by pro-Gaddafi forces, led to him possibly by his own video. His death devastated all those who had come to connect with him through his coverage.

Mo played a pivotal role in telling us—and possibly even the world leaders who were gathered in Paris that day to decide on mission strategy—about the reality on the ground and he affected us in many ways by connecting with us on a very human level. He will surely be remembered as a hero to countless Libyans, to those of us who were lucky to connect with him however briefly, and to anyone who is moved by his courage.

Throughout the recent Middle East revolutions, Facebook, Twitter, Livestream, and other tools have played key roles in bringing people who are not on the ground closer to events than ever before. They have been used by revolutionaries to connect people, share information, coordinate protests, generate media attention, and much more.

But at the end of the day, they are just tools. Their real power lies in how people engage with them for their own ends. Some have described these events as “Twitter revolutions” or “Facebook revolutions”, but this is wrong. They are people’s revolutions during which countless heroes like Mo risked and indeed lost their lives to bring these stories to the world in the hopes that their countries might one day have freedom. Mo left behind a wife and unborn child. No piece of software can do that.

Rest in peace, Mo.

Renee Black is a local entrepreneur and policy analyst.

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