Qaddafi’s Handling of Media Shows Regime’s Flaws
By David D. Kirkpatrick
The New York Times
April 10, 2011
TRIPOLI, Libya — Even the Qaddafi government escort could not contain his disbelief at the sloppiness of the fraud: bloodstains his colleagues had left on bedsheets in a damaged hospital room for more than a week as evidence of civilian casualties from Western airstrikes.
Libyan government officials presented what they said were bloodstains left on bedsheets in a damaged hospital room after NATO airstrikes.
“This is not even human blood!” the escort erupted to group of journalists, making a gesture with his hands like squeezing a tube. “I told them, ‘Nobody is going to believe this!’ ” he explained, as Elizabeth Palmer, a correspondent for CBS News, later recalled. His name was withheld for his protection.
For the more than 100 international journalists cloistered here at the invitation of the Qaddafi government, its management — or, rather, staging — of public relations provided a singular inside view of how this autocracy functions in a crisis.
As the incident of the faked blood shows, the Qaddafi government’s most honest trait might be its lack of pretense to credibility or legitimacy. It lies, but it does not try to be convincing or even consistent.
Government officials often insisted the journalists watch grisly footage of public beheadings, presented on state television as scenes from rebel-held Benghazi, even though the officials surely knew that all the major news organizations had correspondents in Benghazi confirming that there were no such executions.
The members of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s fractious family who run the country scarcely pretend to rest their authority on his impotent and unworkable “Jamahiriya” — the hierarchy of popular committees he calls direct democracy.
And as some of Colonel Qaddafi’s sons now try to persuade the NATO allies to trust their pledges about a cease-fire, power-sharing or democratic reforms, the opaque and fickle system so vividly displayed to the foreign journalists here may come back to haunt them.
Twenty-six journalists received a firsthand lesson in the Qaddafi government’s decision-making style late on Wednesday afternoon. All were suddenly ordered, without explanation or pattern, to leave Libya the next day. By the end of the night, many had negotiated individual exemptions.
Then at breakfast the next morning, another official announced that the exemptions were no good, a bus was coming to dump the journalists in Tunisia, and it was time to go. But by 11 a.m. it was finally clear that there would be no bus to the border at all. Who in the government pushed for the expulsions and who might have stopped them is impossible to determine.
“It is just the chaos of not having institutions in the country,” said one businessman who has worked closely with the Qaddafi family and government, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “When a decision is made, it is not always a decision in truth. Nobody is really in charge, and decisions are made on whim and caprice.”
The idea of inviting the foreign news media into the tightly closed capital appears to have come from Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, who announced it on television. He rose to pre-eminence in the family in part by obtaining influence over the Libyan government’s investment fund, Western businessmen who worked with him say. He doled out investment opportunities inside Libya to businessmen and officials in the West in exchange for help repairing its relations with European and American governments.
While Seif el-Qaddafi has sought to project a reformist face to the news media and the West during the crisis, two of his brothers have led the crackdown on the rebels. Khamis el-Qaddafi leads the most formidable brigade now believed to be charged with the siege of rebel-held Misurata. And Mutassim el-Qaddafi is a national security adviser with a private militia now believed to be leading the fighting against rebels in the east.
When four New York Times journalists were captured by pro-Qaddafi militia in the east, Seif el-Qaddafi and his staff in Tripoli immediately pledged to protect them, and his chief of staff, Mohamed Ismail, said Seif el-Qaddafi deserved credit for engineering their release. But the journalists were blindfolded and beaten for several days before Mr. Ismail said he could locate them, and they said that during that time they had overheard the soldiers talking about orders from “Dr. Mutassim.”
Another brother, Saadi el-Qaddafi, a former professional soccer player who has dabbled in Hollywood movies and Libyan business development, apparently broke with his family last week over the handling of Eman al-Obeidy, the Libyan woman who told journalists she was raped by Qaddafi militiamen and has become a heroine and spokeswoman for the anti-Qaddafi rebels. Government officials tried for two weeks to silence and discredit her, until an opposition satellite network and CNN managed to conduct interviews with her.
After those interviews, Saadi el-Qaddafi decided that instead of muzzling her he would help her tell her story. He sent a car to pick her up and bring her to his office for a second interview with CNN, conducted by its correspondent Nic Robertson. Saadi el-Qaddafi asked Mr. Robertson to cut Ms. Obeidy’s call for the rebels in the eastern Libya and Misurata “to be strong,” so with her consent Mr. Robertson described those comments himself on the air.
But Saadi el-Qaddafi’s intercession on her behalf still provoked an angry confrontation with Qaddafi government press officials and other members of the family, according to people involved. Saadi el-Qaddafi “appeared shocked afterward,” Mr. Robertson said during the broadcast. “He commented on her strong character.”
While some Libyan officials have publicly promised foreign journalists the freedom to report, others have sought to manipulate them. One Libyan official privately warned a Times reporter last week not to trust information from people speaking over Internet connections from Misurata because some were in fact government agents trying to trap journalists. He even cited a specific casualty count recently attributed to a Misurata resident in the pages of this newspaper.
Was that new resident of Misurata who recently made contact in fact a double agent? Maria Golovnina, a Reuters correspondent, received an e-mail purportedly from an exiled opposition figure asking for rebel contacts in Misurata. Could that person, too, be a spy? But both proved legitimate after further communications; the Libyan officials were apparently just playing mind games.
For an official press bus trip to the Misurata on Friday, a senior Libyan press official quizzed a Times correspondent about his “predispositions” before making a decision about allowing him to board.
After another official then assured the reporter that he had a seat on the bus, a brief power struggle broke out among three Libyan media officials, who argued over the job of doling out the scarce seats to a crowd of journalists vying for them. And in the end an official told the correspondent that he was not on the list after all, having evidently failed the quiz.
Journalists who made the trip reported that, as is often the case, Colonel Qaddafi’s news media handlers had shown them more and less than promised. Musa Ibrahim, the government spokesman, has said at news conferences each night for weeks that Misurata was largely under government control, except for small “pockets of violence.”
And each day, residents of Misurata, eventually with corroboration from journalists who reached the besieged city by boat, have said that rebels still held the city despite heavy shelling from the colonel’s forces outside. The government’s bus tour ended up confirming the rebels’ account as well. At the outskirts of the city, journalists found pro-Qaddafi soldiers taking cover from gunfire — one started bleeding as a bullet grazed his head just feet from the journalists — and reporters said the sound of heavy shelling appeared to come from just out of sight. And when the bus returned to the hotel, government officials could be heard arguing behind closed doors about who was responsible for the mishap of the tour.
It was not the first time such a trip had backfired. A few weeks ago officials staged a late-night visit to the city of Zawiya that was supposed to show Qaddafi forces had retaken it from the rebels. But the trip went only as far as a soccer field on the edge of the town, where rowdy Qaddafi supporters set off fireworks. And as the journalists were about to leave, the crowds began grabbing bags of rice and groceries off army trucks, apparently given to them as compensation.
The Libyan authorities customarily refuse to let journalists out of the hotel inside of Tripoli on Fridays, the traditional day for street protests in the Arab world.
But three journalists left behind from the Misurata trip wanted to investigate reports of a sporadic violence against security forces around the city, so one created a diversion to distract a government minder while the others got away.
What they found, they said, was a city locked down more tightly than ever. Heavy contingents of armed men surrounded mosques, and the streets of rebellious neighborhoods were crowded with the white four-door Toyota pickup trucks favored by the pro-Qaddafi militia. Many rode with the barrels of their assault rifles pointed out the windows, making no effort to hide the role of their guns in enforcing the uneasy calm in the city.