Mohammed Nabbous launched Libya's first independent TV station last month and helped tell his country's story to the world. He was under no illusions as to the dangers of his work. “I am not afraid to die. I am afraid to lose the battle,” he said in one of his first broadcasts. Tragically, Nabbous was killed by snipers on Saturday morning.
Mohammed “Mo” Nabbous did everything wrong in his reports from the frontline of the Libyan revolution. He lacked the clipped, measured tones of a BBC journalist. He often broadcast from a webcam, the resolution was grainy and the connection not always great. He didn’t bother with the pretence of impartiality, preferring to be open about his opinion of what was happening. Nonetheless, this 28-year-old Libyan, with a degree in engineering from Oxford and little previous experience in journalism, became the most prominent and influential journalist reporting from the ground in Benghazi, the headquarters of the Libyan rebel movement.
When the protests, and the fighting, began in earnest on 17 February, Nabbous established a television station, Libya Al-Hurra TV, with whatever cameras he could cobble together and a relaxed attitude to production values. Libya’s first independent television station (although it broadcast almost exclusively online) was compelling, with its live feed broadcasting 24 hours a day from Benghazi’s Tahrir Square. Nabbous took his camera into the heart of the action, enabling Al-Hurra TV to broadcast unmatched footage of the revolution. His commentary was heartfelt and emotional, but no less reliable for this, and included touches of humour. His reporting on the burning of one of Benghazi’s power plants was typical: “Oh my god, oh my god...” he said. “It’s really dangerous even to be here, it’s really hot. I think my camera is melting...”
Nabbous also became the main contact point and source of information for a number of Western journalists trying to cover the story without any decent access to Benghazi. He was able to help with interviews, correct misconceptions and, above all, impart information - information which then became part of the global narrative of Libya’s uprising.
Ultimately, Nabbous realised journalism need not be about slick graphics, elaborate prose or coiffured presenters; journalism is about information, and he made sure the information got out.
But information is a dangerous game, as he was well aware. In an early broadcast, Nabbous said: “I am not afraid to die, I am afraid to lose the battle.” And so he made contingency plans setting up two offices in two different locations, so if one was bombed, the operation could continue. He also expanded his team, making sure that if something happened to him personally, the videos and flow of information would continue.
Tragically, on Saturday morning, while Nabbous was trying to get footage of Gaddafi’s forces breaking the so-called ceasefire which Brother Leader had announced earlier, he was shot by snipers and died of his injuries hours later. Tributes poured in from all over the world, including thousands on Facebook. “Mohammed Nabbous was one of the courageous voices from Benghazi broadcasting to the world from the beginning. Smart, selfless, brave,” wrote CNN’s Ben Wedeman. Nabbous was the “face of citizen journalism in Libya”, wrote Andy Carvin of NPR. He added later, on Twitter: “One thing to take away from Mo’s death this morning. His final reporting made clear to the world that Gaddafi’s ceasefire was bullshit.”
As the Libyan conflict escalates into all-out war, with French fighter planes overhead and American missiles screaming down on Tripoli – an intervention Nabbous did not live to see – the story of Al-Hurra TV and of Mo Nabbous is more relevant than ever. It would have been easy for the Libyan conflict to slip into the shadows of foreign politics, into a dark place where death counts are sketchy, the international community doesn’t care and the authoritarian government always wins. Into the place Côte D’Ivoire is currently in, for example. That Libya has not and has remained on the international agenda despite the threat of nuclear holocaust in Japan, is a testament to the brave work of committed journalists such as Mo Nabbous, who were able to ensure reliable, accurate information went out from the country, accompanied by images which spoke for themselves.
That Nabbous did not have to rely on traditional, established media to get his stories out (indeed, the established media relied on him) shows that citizen journalism is a realistic option, even in countries with repressive media environments. But his death shows us that journalism – good journalism, honest journalism – is almost by definition risky. For journalism done properly is a dangerous, courageous profession, with the ability to influence world events, world events in which the journalist is as much a part as anybody else. Gaddafi would agree, as would Robert Mugabe and Isaias Afwerki and Omar Al Bashir, and countless other dictators and autocrats. Why else go to so much trouble to silence the media?
The life and death of Mo Nabbous is an example to journalists throughout Africa and the world; a reminder of why journalists do what they do, and why they need to be protected. As Libya – bar Gaddafi and his cronies – mourns his passing, the rest of us salute an extraordinary African journalist. The battle is not lost, Mo. FAM
Watch more: Al-Hurra TV at Livestream.