Alive In Benghazi

Posted March 23rd, 2011 at 2:48 pm (UTC-4)
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Libyans Sharing Stories From The Front Lines

The video is as direct as its story is powerful.

A young Libyan, Ali Salem Ali Milad Shaoud, looks directly into the camera – and, by extension, into the eyes of everyone watching him online.  He’s wearing a kafiya, a black t-shirt, a green flak vest…and a bandage wrapping his right hand and arm.

“This is from the days of the Fedeel Katiba in the Keesh area,” he says.  Shaoud is a Libyan rebel fighter, and in the recent battle against pro-Gadhafi forces in Katiba, Shaoud was armed with only a “jalateena” – a can filled with gunpowder:

“I was running with it to light it. It was like a fire in Katiba – there was a lot of smoke.   I threw the jalateena, I was hit in the hand.   I was running and still didn’t know.   Then someone said, ‘Your hand. Blood, you know?‘  I looked at my hand and saw the blood.  That was the day Katiba fell.”

Shaoud’s story didn’t grab headlines or make the international news broadcasts.  Told simply and cleanly, it’s just one moment in a complex, chaotic situation.

But Shaoud’s tale doesn’t just stand alone.  It’s part of a growing Internet archive of those of his fellow countrymen, and together they tell the story most journalists can’t – what Libyans actually think, experience, and desire in the battle for their nation.

It’s a new and potentially powerful form of online journalism that some say could fundamentally change how people learn about their world.  And that’s exactly what Brian Conley wants.

Conley is the co-founder of “Small World News,” an Internet media firm “…dedicated to providing tools to journalists and citizens around the world to report their stories to the world.”

“We really make an effort to provide people with the basic fundamentals of ethics, multiple sourcing, and the credibility of your work,” says Conley from Cairo, fresh from a training session in Benghazi.

“People want to figure out a better way to have a voice, or a way to have more impact, more clarity.  Too often people are really daunted by the idea of creating media.”

That’s where Small World News comes in.  Conley and his team train locals in a variety of countries – Libya, Iraq and Egypt among them – in the basics of journalism and digital media production.  Once trained, the locals produce their own stories and present them online.

It’s lead to a new venture: “Alive In Libya” – just one of several “Alive In” websites.  The idea: to let people living amid turmoil tell their stories that journalists can’t – or don’t.  Says Conley, “Alive In” gives people a voice – and connects them with others around the globe:

“We see “Alive In” in the long term being a person-to-person network.  I see a world where Libyans produce content that is consumed by the West, the international community, but is also consumed by Nigerian activists who want to know more about what’s going on there…

“Yes, there’s always going to be CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera – these big news agencies that are doing big breaking news 24-hour coverage.  But I think there’s also a place for hyper-local content that’s aimed at the international community.”

But hyper-local can sometimes mean hyper-dangerous.  It’s one thing to post a video of protests or battles – it’s entirely another to face arrest, or worse, for doing so.

About 10 people in Libya are part of the “Alive In” team there, curating news stories and images from around the world – and creating genuinely unique content from the hot zones.

Click here to hear our complete interview, and Brian Conley discuss the risks his team and “Alive In” journalists face:

“Alive In Libya” is currently managed by Seraj Elalem, a 23-year-old Libyan who has enthusiastically taken to the role of journalist.  “For 42 years Libya was covered by a media blanket that showed nothing except Gadhafi, his sons and random people shouting while holding posters of him,” says Elalem.  “I’m hoping to show the world who the Libyan people are.”

Alive In Libya” is filled with original stories, videos and images submitted by Libyan citizens telling of their experiences.  It’s a high-tech project in a sometimes low-tech nation.

A screen-grab from Seraj Elalem's Twitter feed

Recently Elalem used Twitter to live-tweet during a recent National Transitional Council news conference – even asking for questions he can ask next time.  Writing via email, he says wants to do more:

“I’m trying to get through to the people of the world, who I believe are starting to lose faith in the old media and are more interested in media provided through people who are actually going through the war/crisis/etc.  I’m hoping they’d see and hear what’s happening here, that we are human beings only asking for basic rights, things that other people take for granted.  Teachers, doctors, engineers, house wives, bakers – (they now) had to become soldiers in order to protect their lives and snatch away their freedom from this tyrant.  The world needs to see this.”

For Conley, Small World News and the “Alive In” projects are more than just a window into regions in turmoil.  They are a way to add depth to news – and possibly a start to finding solutions:

“These teams (have) the opportunity to speak to the international community about what Libyans really want.  There’s very little context beyond ‘Gadhafi’s bad, he’s a dictator, we need to get rid of him.’  There’s very little context beyond that about what comes next.”

If Elalem, Conley and the Small World News team have their way, that’s about to change.

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