Mohammed Nabbous, or Mo, as he was known to many of those following his video stream and commentary on social media about events in Libya, was killed by sniper fire in Benghazi on Saturday, March 19th. If you’re not yet familiar with Mohammed’s work, I encourage you to read these remembrances of him on Global Voices Online and The Washington Post‘s BlogPost.
It’s the first time, that I can remember, a citizen journalist’s work has been discussed at length in the mainstream media without the focus being about the veracity of the content. In part, this is due to some direct relationships with Mohammed among mainstream outlets’ like NPR and CNN. He had become a respected source on the ground.
We got in touch with several of our #video4change community members via Twitter to ask them about Mohammed’s reporting, how it impacted their understanding of the situation in Libya, and to reflect on how real risks are faced by those documenting human rights abuses. Thanks to my colleague Mari Moneymaker who manages our Twitter feed (@witnessorg) for reaching out to our interviewees.
We’re sharing just three perspectives below. We hope that you’ll share your own thoughts with us in the comments below about Mohammad’s work and perhaps shed some light on other brave citizens like him operating elsewhere.
A Perspective from Inside Libya
The first interview is with a self-described citizen journalist based in Tripoli who, for security reasons, can only be identified by the Twitter handle @ChangeInLibya. They said, “Things are very tough here right now and the city is still under Gaddafi’s control, so to protect myself I have taken every possible measure to hide my real identity.”
When and how did you become aware of Mo’s work? I started my twitter account on the 11th of February. Back then, we had no way of getting information from Libya besides video uploads (from mobile phones) and phone calls. When Mo made his Livestream account on the 20th of February or so (after Benghazi rebelled against Gaddafi and was liberated), he managed to combine the two means together. I was immediately interested in his work and started following the Livestream channel whenever I could.
What was unique about Mohammed’s reporting? Could his methods/ style be replicated elsewhere? Mohammed had a very unique style of reporting. He had a calm and reassuring voice, he knew how to express himself and above all his English was adequate and he could convey the message in both English and Arabic, to all of his on-line followers. I think his style can very well be replicated, but it takes a lot of dedication to come close to Mohammed. I hope that someone will be able to continue Mohammed’s work in Benghazi though, that is the only way Mohammed would have wanted us to honour him.
What image or video that Mohammed recorded stood out for you as a human rights activist? One of the first videos Mohammed recorded (embedded below and recorded February 19, 2011). This video spread all over the world, and was seen on every media channel abroad and by millions of people. This video brought widespread attention to the Libyan issue, and made people interested in our story. This is what made Mohammed a hero for many of us working hard here in Libya.
A View from the United States
Our second interview was with Kendra Kellogg, founder of the E-Advocate Network (@eadvocate). Kendra creates offline and online projects to support change agents who use citizen media. She also researches the use of social media for human rights.
When and how did you become aware of Mo’s work? I began archiving citizen media from the Middle East in June of 2009 to analyze meta-data patterns. I focus on under-reported or misrepresented human rights violations that may scale to a crime against humanity. In the week before the UN decision, Libya was such a situation. I began tracking down all sources. I found Mo around March 14th.
What was unique about Mohammed’s reporting? Could his methods/ style be replicated elsewhere? His long stretches of video and his voice were the keys that allowed critical context. Mo was the consistent voice who ran towards the bullets and showed the world that “these are innocent civilians.” In the final week of Mo’s life, he captured what Gaddafi did not want the international community to understand. Gaddafi’s militia was dropping bombs on family homes. This military tactic is a crime against humanity and the militia was closing in on Benghazi. Gaddafi had proclaimed he was waging a “civil war” against his own country. Gaddafi’s framing of the war like this successfully focused international media attention to the front line of armed “rebels.” The truth is that the front lines were now trying to protect communities from overwhelming and indiscriminate military force. Here is a video that illustrates this last point:
What message do you take away from Mohammed’s reporting as a human rights activist? Mo’s innovation was driven by his determination to find, document and express the truth about human rights violations in his country, and fight for the freedom. What I have found since researching the citizen media of many uprisings since 2009, is that humanity’s natural sense of human rights is coupled with a natural instinct to document their abuses. It’s an instinct that is built on faith in our fellow mankind. Mo had such a strong belief that if the rest of Libya knew the truth of the initial violations in Benghazi, they would respond with their hearts and rise up for justice. He was right. In the last weeks of his life, he believed that if the world knew the truth, we would respond with our hearts. He was right. With each innovation, each video there is a profound belief in humanity and love for mankind. He died for it.
Observations from a Concerned Citizen
Our third interview is with the citizen activist who goes by the handle @Lissnup. She originally joined Twitter to “follow and support events in Iran in June 2009,” and expanded her sphere of interest by following economic, political and financial links from Iran around the globe. This work inevitably led to much information dealing with Human Rights concerns, and she pays particular attention to that field. As well as being very vocal and active on the internet, lissnup is a pacifist, and founded the Global Freedom Movement at the end of 2009, to act as a loose network linking activists worldwide, after hooking up with people in other countries with similar ideals on Facebook and Twitter.
@ShababLibya, who I was following after joining a Facebook page supporting Libya protests just ahead of Feb 17th.As news of protest movements in different countries has emerged I have systematically searched for solid sources of information both on the ground and outside the relevant country. My interest is to monitor events, offer assistance and support wherever possible, and to help amplify important messages for local activists. I found Mo through
What was particularly useful about Mohammed’s reporting? Could his methods/ style be replicated elsewhere? One important aspect of Mo’s great appeal was his insistence on confirming all reported stories and establishing facts, at a time when there were so many conflicting reports flying around, including regime propaganda, and for a time also there were hardly any foreign news journalists in Libya. I don’t speak Arabic so having news from the scene in English was another massive benefit. Otherwise you are constantly struggling to translate video, and the delay means most news is out of date by the time it gets translated.
Mo had a combination of learned skills which could be replicated: technical knowledge of how to record, process and publish video; an understanding of the better principles of news reporting; respect for protecting the identities of fellow activists; and a great command of the English language. What is harder to replicate is his passion, but from what I have seen this is an abundant resource not only in Libya but across the region!
What image or message from Libya stood out for you as a human rights activist? That’s a hard one, it’s still all going on, with new memorable images and quotes continue to reach us each day. I was particularly touched by a quote which I read (and tweeted) recently from a Telegraph article:
The wrecked war plane erupted in a ball of flames, heightening the sense of fear. But the first American to walk clear – tall and with a moustache – need not have worried. He held up his hands in submission and tried his best to surrender, calling out “OK, OK” to the advancing crowd. But his parachute had delivered him safely into a field of sheep, deep in rebel-held territory. “I hugged him and said don’t be scared we are your friends,” said Younis Amruni, 27, one of the first on the scene.
The plane crash story was made even more memorable for me by the tale of 22-year-old Hamdi Ahmed Abdulati, who had his leg amputated after coming under fire from the coalition rescue helicopter sent to retrieve the 2-man crew from the downed fighter jet. Clearly the entire incident was a tragic mistake. His father Mohammad had also sustained injuries from bullet wounds. I felt so bad for them, especially the son.
Yet other Libyans who were in the area at the same time sent a message of thanks to the coalition for their help and support. I can’t imagine a more gracious response in those circumstances. It tells me that we are dealing with a nation of Mo Nabbouses.
Do you incorporate safety and security protocols into your work or do you share tips with your Twitter followers? Yes! I am constantly reviewing safety and security for online activists, and I gather and distribute information to help protesters. I also get descriptive diagrams or other useful information. Last month, I needed to draw attention again to the need to protect protesters who were shown in photographs or video. From dealing with Iran, I’d learned the hard way that it is best to blur or obscure faces otherwise the protesters become easy targets for brutal oppressive regimes. I got some awesome help from WITNESS, including useful links, which I am still using and sharing around the world. I also got a few messages from contacts in the media asking for more information about the issue, and I was really thrilled with their positive reaction. I guess I had assumed they would only ever want crisp images, but the few I heard from impressed me by seeing the need to prioritise people’s safety.