AS Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi tightens his grip on the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and the millions of people trapped inside, the world is debating how it can help the opposition, including no-flight zones and air strikes.
But there’s a less aggressive, though perhaps even more important, step we can take: ensuring that Libyans can communicate with the outside world.
Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and communications devices like camera-enabled cellphones have been important tools for protesters in the revolutions that are rocking Arab countries. This is particularly true in countries like Libya that lack opposition political parties or even formal opposition movements, requiring protesters to build communications networks literally overnight.
Perhaps that’s why, since the Libyan demonstrations started last month, Internet access and cellphone service in Libya has severely deteriorated — the work, many suspect, of the government, since Colonel Qaddafi’s son Muhammad runs the country’s satellite and cellphone communications companies. Huge portions of the population are now frequently unable to complete cellphone calls or gain access to the Internet.
Loyalists to Colonel Qaddafi are also reported to have confiscated cellphones or deleted photographs on them to prevent the spread of images from the uprising.
As a result, democracy demonstrators have had a harder time communicating with one another, while foreign correspondents in Libya have found it nearly impossible to report on events fully.
Colonel Qaddafi and his loyalists, meanwhile, can use the military communication networks they control to counter rebel forces.
Fortunately, there is an easy step the United States and its allies could take to help: deploying cellphone base stations on aircraft or tethered balloons. The calls could then be routed to Navy ships equipped with satellite communications terminals.