* Caricatures break down fear of veteran Libyan leader
* Eastern press rallies support for rebels in the west
* Some readers say new titles need rigour, maturity
By Sherine El Madany
BENGHAZI, Libya, May 24 (Reuters) - Journalists in rebel-held eastern Libya are wreaking revenge on their former master Muammar Gaddafi after decades of forced adulation, reviving the fortunes of the country’s moribund press.
Docile titles once faithfully relayed the musings of the “Brotherly Leader” and had to report world affairs through the prism of his world view. Now a flurry of new titles serve up daily helpings of invective and caricature at his expense.
“Satan defects from Gaddafi” read the headline of weekly “Intefadet al-Ahrar (Uprisings of The Free) on May 5. Cartoons portray Gaddafi as a criminal, a mass murderer or a vampire thirsty for the blood of Libya’s people.
Papers refer to Gaddafi as “Qerdafi” and “Gerzafi”, which combine his name with the Arabic words for monkey and rat.
Caricaturists are giving their imagination free rein, drawing missiles falling out of Gaddafi’s bushy hair or depicting him as a rotten tooth pulled from Libya’s mouth.
“This freedom we now enjoy in the east is more precious than gold, even if it means I will go to bed on an empty stomach,” said Salah Fouad, an engineer at oil company Agoco who established the February 17 Newspaper in the city of Tobruk.
Humourists can tap a rich vein for inspiration. Gaddafi is known as much for a flamboyant dress sense, provocative views and a wealth of quirky habits as the repression of political opponents.
An example: Libyans say Gaddafi ordered that football commentators on state TV describe players on the national football team only by their shirt numbers for fear they might become as famous as him.
Journalists in the east are still revelling in their new-found freedom to poke fun at Gaddafi, but rights campaigners say Libya’s press needs maturity, factual rigour and stronger foundations to challenge and scrutinize its future leaders.
“A free press is the reflection of a democracy, and it is up to Libyans themselves to safeguard this freedom and ensure it’s not hijacked,” said politics teacher Amal Shoukri. “It is the media’s role to open the public’s eye to any wrongdoing.”
New laws and a new constitution must put the press on a surer footing and guarantee no one is above the law, she said.
At least today the papers are read — Libyans say that, previously, they used them mostly to clean windows and wrap gifts. When they did open them up, many would skip the politics and society pages and jump straight to the sport.
“In the past, I made a conscious decision not to read the papers,” said actor Abdel Nabi el-Maghrabi. “Now, I read the papers because they give objective and constructive criticism.”
During Gaddafi’s four-decade rule, opposition was crushed, power concentrated in his hands and opponents spirited away by his revolutionary committees, never to be heard of again.
“All the news reported was about Gaddafi and what he wanted us to read, and most of it was lies,” said Sahar Qounaiber, a 51-year-old engineer. “At first I would read the papers to know what Gaddafi wanted but, with the repeated lies, I ended up buying them just for the obituaries, and to wipe my windows.”
The rebel-held cities of Benghazi and Tobruk now have more than 50 newspapers and magazines run by independent companies or volunteers, with a circulation ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 copies for each publication, according to Ali Ben Soued, head of the rebel media centre in Benghazi.
Many have chosen for their logo an image of Omar al-Mukhtar, the symbol of Libya’s resistance against Italian colonialism. Others have reprised Mukhtar’s historic declaration “We do not surrender, we win or we die” as their motto.
Some are published in English, a language Gaddafi tried to ban from the press in an attempt to diminish the influence of the West, according to his critics.
“The media under Gaddafi were controlled by him. His actions, his family, his officials and the violations committed against Libyans, these were all red lines we couldn’t cross,” said Ben Soued.
He said the east Libyan press was focusing for now on supporting rebels battling Gaddafi’s forces in western Libya, documenting reports of brutality by Gaddafi loyalists and reporting decisions of NATO and the rebel national council.
“We want the rebels fighting elsewhere in Libya to know that we are on our way to them,” said Ben Soued.
In the square outside the Benghazi courthouse that served for months as a headquarters for the rebels, a poster of a journalist hangs on a wall. The poster says he was murdered for reporting on corruption under Gaddafi.
“If an article crossed any red lines such as criticising Gaddafi and his sons, it would be deleted and the writer would get jailed,” said Galal Moustafa, a 42-year-old civil engineer.
Moustafa said he was prevented from writing an article about lack of urban planning under Gaddafi.
Politics teacher Shoukri said the blossoming of east Libya’s press was the natural result of decades of repression.
“It’s like being thirsty and finding water all of a sudden,” she said.