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Libyan dissenters worldwide build a virtual headquarters--on a local public-access server

"You know, you are a dog. You will bark forever. You will never be back in our country. Qaddafi will be living in our country, he will be president forever. Dog, bad dog, stray dog, live forever as a refugee."

Though he has the words almost memorized, Tarek Bagdadi's eyes widen as he replays the anonymous threat left on his home answering machine last April. Pacing across the worn carpet in the equipment room at Minneapolis Telecommunications Network (MTN), he listens to the words--part Arabic, part broken English--with a mix of pain and fascination: Clearly, he got someone's attention.

The caller's ire was sparked by the Libyan Freedom Channel, an online discussion group Bagdadi created on the MTN server. The group, a nonprofit funded primarily by franchise fees Time Warner Cable pays to the City of Minneapolis, coordinates programming on Minneapolis's public-access cable channels. In the last few years, it has also ventured into online communications; that project, funded by grants and subscription fees, offers Web hookup services and training to individuals and nonprofits. In his day job, Bagdadi serves as MTN's production manager.

Tarek Bagdadi's Libyan Freedom Channel is the most visited site on the Minneapolis Telecommunications Network server
Craig Lassig
Tarek Bagdadi's Libyan Freedom Channel is the most visited site on the Minneapolis Telecommunications Network server

Perched on a swivel chair, his eyes glued to the computer screen, LFC's creator is eager to show off his electronic baby. Known to visitors as al-muntada, or meeting place, the site (libyafc.mtn.org) is the most visited URL on MTN'S server, averaging more than 8,000 hits per day. Visitors are invited to tap into Libyan discussion forums and news links, view photos and video footage, or listen to recordings such as the anonymous threat and a variety of freedom songs. Tunes such as "Mad Man in Africa" by Masoud ("The African Angel") signal LFC's political orientation: "There's a mad man in Africa/He's after you, he's after me."

The 48-year-old Bagdadi is no newcomer to political activism. In the late 1970s, he worked as a journalist and translator in his hometown of Tripoli. By 1980, he says, he tired of the constraints placed on the media by the regime of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi and decided to return to Minnesota, where he had studied engineering. He hasn't been to Libya since, though he came to within 20 miles of the border in 1985, when he did media-relations work for the rebel group National Front for the Salvation of Libya.

Bagdadi says he started LFC because as he ventured into cyberspace a few years ago, he noticed that "there were Libyans all over the world that needed to be heard. I could feel the demand, just from the buzz." Back then the Libyan Discussion Group (www.mena.net/libyadg) was the main forum for Libyans to converse online. But the group's administrator, Bagdadi says, became nervous about certain posts and ultimately began deleting those he considered inflammatory. "I detest censorship," remarks Bagdadi, adding that he does try to weed out porn-related posts on his site. "For the last 30 years, Libyans haven't had the chance to openly discuss ideas of exile, freedom of speech, or a way to fight the regime."

He approached then MTN assistant system administrator Derrik Dyka with his proposal for the site in 1998. Dyka says the idea seemed to fit the group's mission: "MTN's whole philosophy is to let people say what they want, so I didn't really view it as a terribly risky endeavor." By that July the Libyan Freedom Channel went live.

"MTN was very supportive," Bagdadi says now, "though I'm not sure they--or even I, for that matter--knew what we were getting into." No one, he says, was prepared for the number of visitors the site would attract, or for the occasional threat of legal action. (Though Bagdadi and MTN administrators have received e-mails from individuals criticized on the site, warning, "You will be hearing from my solicitors," no lawsuits have ever been filed.)

Bagdadi credits the site's popularity in part to the trust he has attempted to build among visitors. On the welcome page, he offers his real name and home telephone number; he says he took the step to create an open, comfortable setting, and to break down the fear he says is ever present in Libyans' minds when discussing politics or human rights. "By coming out and saying, 'I am Tarek Bagdadi, and I am opposed to the regime, and if I can do this, so can you,' I hope to inspire people. Right now for Libyans it's important to have role models. So many of our people have no hope, because they think that Qaddafi will reign forever."

Indeed, about one-third of LFC'S contributors post their comments through an anonymizer--an online service allowing individuals to visit sites through an outside proxy--to ensure their privacy. "Anonymity is paramount among Libyans," Bagdadi explains. "People are like, 'I could be next' if they say anything in opposition to the government."

They have good reason to be concerned, says Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics specializing in Middle Eastern policy and head of the Amnesty International chapter at the University of San Francisco. "Though Libya's role in international terrorism has frequently been exaggerated by successive U.S. administrations," he explains, "the one area where their terrorism has been all too real has been toward their exiled critics. Libya has actually sent out assassins to kill its dissenters."

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