Libya’s rebels develop new secret weapon

A TV station run by Libyan rebels is being launched in Qatar. As rebel fighters struggle in the physical battles, they make advances in the field of 'soft power'.

Rebels in Libya have suffered a series of military disasters. Outfought and outmanoeuvred by superior loyalist forces, their optimism has faded. The UN airstrikes that helped them advance are slowing down, as the USA withdraws its planes. Increasingly it looks like Libya may be in for a long and bloody war.

But while the military contest is going badly, the rebels are arming themselves with the more subtle weapons of 'soft power'. In Benghazi, a chaotic crop of newspapers and radio stations has sprung up, now that the press has been liberated from authoritarian control.

Meanwhile in the small Arab state of Qatar, a group of Libyan exiles have started a new TV station for free Libya. With correspondents in all the rebel-held cities, the station will cover all aspects of the fledgling rebel state, bringing a new sense of unity and purpose to the beleaguered population.

The station's founder, Mahmud Shammam, has even grander ambitions. 'We need a heavy dosage of dialogue,' he says. 'We want Libyans to think about the future: the rule of law, civil society, a new constitution. We want to promote a culture of forgiving.'

It's no surprise that the station is based in Qatar. The tiny country on the Arabian Peninsula, dwarfed by more powerful neighbours, has long been one of the world's leading users of 'soft power'.

Its state-owned TV Channel, Al Jazeera, is watched all over the Arab world and has played a leading role in the so-called 'Arab Spring'. Al Jazeera reporters on the ground in Egypt and Tunisia are credited with encouraging revolutionary sentiment, and restricting the ability of dictators to use extreme brutality against their people. In Cairo, after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, joyful protesters waved banners thanking the channel for their role in the uprising.

Al Jazeera gives Qatar a powerful voice in the Arab world. And the new Libyan TV station will give Libyan rebels a voice with which to talk to each other, and to the international community. That, at least, is the idea.

Softly does it
Reporters and TV broadcasts won't stop Gaddafi's soldiers if they reach Benghazi. But they do have a crucial role.

A free press makes for a healthy society. If Benghazi looks free and civilised, the rebels are much more likely to enjoy continued international support.

Mustafa Gheriani, spokesman for the rebel council, is convinced of its value. 'The pen is more powerful than the gun,' he said this week. 'We believe that Libya will have a great future as long as we have a free press and free speech.'

You Decide

  1. 'The pen is mightier than the sword.' Is this true? If so why?
  2. 'All media is propaganda.' Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Imagine you were working for a new newspaper, TV channel or radio station in rebel held Benghazi. Work in groups to prepare your first broadcast or print edition.
  2. Do some research on a notable example of soft power or propaganda being used, either now or in the past. Write a report evaluating its use and effects.

Some People Say...

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield.'(Lao Tzu – 7th Century BC)”

What do you think?

Q & A

You mentioned 'soft power'?
Yes. Hard power is measured in tanks, planes, guns and cash – things which allow you to force others to do what you want. But soft power is growing in importance.
And what exactly does it mean?
Soft power is the ability to affect events by persuasion, diplomacy or by setting the agenda. Its tools are things like media, foreign ambassadors or cultural exports (e.g. Hollywood films or fast food).
And does it work?
Countries invest huge amounts in foreign relations. Both the US and Britain have special media outlets which project soft power worldwide – Voice of America and the BBC World Service. They must think it's worth something.A But dictators often use media broadcasts to spread lies and demonise opponents. So it can be used for evil as well as good.

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