Feb. 25, 2011— -- The warning from the U.S. State Department today was unusually stark. Libyan diplomats had told their American counterparts that journalists found to be inside the country illegally would be considered al Qaeda conspirators.
"Be advised, entering Libya to report on the events unfolding there is additionally hazardous with the government labeling unauthorized media as terrorist collaborators and claiming they will be arrested if caught," the American warning said.
Even before violence erupted last week, with government forces cracking down hard on protestors seeking its ouster, Libya was one of the most dangerous and restrictive places in the world for journalists to work. Under the totalitarian rule of leader Moammar Gadhafi, strict controls were maintained over state media and visas for journalists seeking to do objective work were nearly impossible to come by.
But with Gadhafi's control of many parts of the country shrinking, reporters pounced on the opportunity to enter the country where, only days before, broadcasters had to rely on phone calls from witnesses on the ground and videos of the protests that were posted online.
Journalists trying to enter Libya from its eastern border with Egypt found themselves waved through by makeshift guards aligned with to the opposition who replaced officials that had abandoned their posts as the uprising swept that part of the country.
CNN's Ben Wedeman, one of the first western journalists to enter Libya through Egypt, described being welcomed with cheers and showers of candy from locals. He described the feeling as being one of the first American jeeps to enter Paris after its liberation during World War Two.
ABC News' Alex Marquardt also entered eastern Libya through Egypt yesterday, as did NBC News' Richard Engel. Several newspaper reporters, unburdened by conspicuous television equipment, have been able to report from other parts of the country, including some even from the capital Tripoli.
Coverage of the uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa has been very difficult for journalists. In Egypt, many, including ABC News' Brian Hartman and a cameraman, were targeted with violence at the hands of plain-clothes police and neighborhood gangs allied with former President Hosni Mubarak. In Bahrain, ABC News' Miguel Marquez was set upon by a group of men who roughed him up and took his camera.
In Libya, however, independent journalists were barred from entering the country at all as the protests swelled, as they have been for much of Gadhafi's 42-year rule.
"Media repression in Egypt at its worst never came anywhere close to media repression in Libya at its worst," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the regional coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
"You're simply not going to get a visa to do any story from Libya unless you're going to do a softball story on how great Gadhafi is? Libya is among the most closed, most repressive places, most dangerous places for independent journalists to operate," he added.
Domestic journalists worked under severe restrictions where one critical article could mean the end of your career or worse, according to Dayem. He says most independent media there is found online and is written by reporters living abroad in exile.
Gadhafi's instruments of repression have kept up their pressure during the uprising as well. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, local reporters and even private citizens who were quoted by Al Jazeera and other news outlets almost immediately disappeared and have not been heard from since.
For now, foreign reporters continue to report inside Libya, cautiously moving farther west and taking care not to broadcast live from anywhere that could betray their location.