The Post first past the post: watching the Libyan media.

Posted in 1 by Editor on February 25, 2011

How accurate and up to date is the background information on Libya provided by the international news services? Judging from the BBC’s assessment of a Libyan English language newspaper, The Tripoli Post, this information is not always accurate. Of course, it does not follow that all of the BBC’s reporting and analysis of the unfolding momentous events in Libya is inaccurate, far from it! It does mean, however, that the situation on the ground – and this should not surprise us – is developing at a much faster pace than outsiders, even experienced professional observers, can digest and analyse with adequate accuracy. It may also mean that previous information on Libyan society – a far more complex and nuanced reality than many seem to appreciate – may have been somewhat approximative and stereotyped.

Here is an example. The Tripoli Post, a Libyan newspaper with an online portal, is referred to as an “English-language pro-government weekly” in the BBC News’s Libya country profile on a page “last updated at 10:19 GMT, Tuesday, 22 February 2011” (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/country_profiles/819291.stm ). We followed the link provided by BBC News and read the following report (which we are reproducing in full):

Govt Opponents Claim Victory in Misurata
23/02/2011 20:04:00

Opponents of the government were claiming victory in Misurata, a provincial centre, about 200km east of Tripoli in another indication that the rebellion was encroaching on cities closer to the capital, Tripoli. Al Jazeera also reported large protests in the southern city of Sabha.

Libyans fleeing across the country’s western border into Tunisia said there had been two nights of fighting between rebel and pro-Qaddafi forces in the town of Sabratha, home of an important Roman archaeological site 60 km west of Tripoli.

According to Reuters News Agency thousands of Libyan forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi have deployed there in an attempt to extend the crackdown that gathered pace in the capital after Al Qathafi’s television address on Tuesday calling for ordinary citizens to help hunt down opponents “house by house.”

A resident is reported to have said that messages being broadcast from the loudspeakers of local mosques were urging people to attack government opponents in Sabratha, while a local radio station that had been broadcasting opposition messages was attacked.

In Tripoli, armed men, described by many as “mercenaries” were still roaming the city, while more pro-Al Qathafi forces were reported to be moving toward the capital to reinforce his hold. Citizens are afraid as they themselves don’t have any weapons to fight with.

The country’s interior minister, Abdel Fattah Younes al-Abidi, who announced his defection to the opposition urged the Libyan Army to join the people and their “legitimate demands.”

Abidi said Wednesday that he had decided to resign after the people of Benghazi were shot down with machine guns. In an interview with CNN, he said he had argued with Colonel Al Qathafi’s intention to use airplanes to bomb that city, warning that it would kill thousands.

But Colonel Qaddafi’s security forces have made no attempt as yet to take back the growing number of towns in the east that have in effect declared their independence and set up informal opposition governments.

The Libyan revolt that began with a relatively organised core of longtime government critics in Benghazi, swiftly spread to the capital. It was spontaneous, outracing any efforts to coordinate the protests.

The Libyan government lashed out with a level of violence unseen in either of the other uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, partly by “importing foreigners without ties to the Libyan people”. But there were heavy defections from the Libyan government forces as they abandoned their uniforms to join the cause. (http://www.tripolipost.com/articledetail.asp?c=1&i=5466 )

[We are aware of the inconsistent transliteration of the Arabic proper noun معمر القذافي‎  (mʿmr alqḏāfī) as Al Qathafy and Qaddafi in the text above but the text has been quoted as published by The Tripoli Post; we ourselves prefer to use Ghaddafy]


It is difficult to imagine how what BBC News characterises as a “pro-government weekly” could dispassionately report that the “Libyan government lashed out with a level of violence unseen in either of the other uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt” and to openly admit that “there were heavy defections from the Libyan government forces as they abandoned their uniforms to join the cause”. More significantly, it is difficult to reconcile The Tripoli Post’ s ssessment of the revolt as “spontaneous, outracing any efforts to coordinate the protests” with the assertion by both Muammar Ghaddafy and his son Sejf that the uprising is the result of an externally organised conspiracy.

Also note that Ghaddafy is never referred to as ‘the Leader’ but simply by his name or as “Colonel Qaddafy”. The regime’s forces as simply the “pro-Al Qathafi forces” or “Libyan forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi” and even  as “armed men, described by many as ‘mercenaries’ roaming the city (Tripoli)”.  The sources referred to are the international agencies and residents on the ground. The government is never referred to as a source.

There are, of course, also indications  that the editor may be – in the improbable event of a future restoration of the status quo ante – be telling future inquisitors:  “Now, Criticks, do your worst, that here are met; For, like a Rook, I have hedg’d in my Bet.” (George Villiers, The Rehearsal, 1672). Here’s the indication: In the passage where it is reported that The country’s interior minister, Abdel al-Abidi announced his defection to the opposition, we read that he also   “urged the Libyan Army to join the people and their “legitimate demands” ”.   Note how the words ‘legitimate demands’ are within inverted commas in the original (“ ”) , suggesting that the editor is taking an arms distance position from the person he is quoting and practically saying – just in case we may be ill disposed towards the idea that the said demands are in fact justified – that he was only quoting al-Abidi. This caution is, it cannot be emphasised enough, balanced by several instances where the editor takes considerable risks and reveals his inclinations, e.g., the final words (… the cause) are not enclosed between quote marks.

The Tripoli Post has this to say about itself: “The Tripoli Post first appeared in 1999. It is meant to be a newspaper of substance. Its objective is to communicate Libya’s news and views to the rest of the world. The Tripoli Post and The Tripoli Post On-Line focuses on serving readers by making information available with regard to Libya’s politics, business, culture, sports, history and the country’s dynamic growing population.” ( http://www.tripolipost.com/aboutus.asp)

We have no doubt that the BBC’s assessment is in the best of professional good faith. It may also well be that The Tripoli Mirror is itself evolving into a more politically independent news provider and that the BBC’s assessment was written well before the revolt and not revised in the light of The Tripoli Post‘s metamorphosis.  

The Tripoli Post  has in fact changed.  Above we noted that in its reporting of the revolt, The Tripoli Post never refers to Ghaddafy as ‘Leader’. Contrast this with its report in September of last  year of the festivities of 40th anniversary of the coup d’etat that brought Ghaddafy to power in 1969. In that report, Ghaddafy is pompously referred to as the “Leader of the Revolution, Supreme Commander, Chairman of the African Union”    (http://www.tripolipost.com/articledetail.asp?c=1&i=3545&archive=1 ).

Although today’s The Tripoli Post is light years ahead of last year’s The Tripoli Post, a close analysis of its content and style over the last few years suggests that it was already close to Sejf Gheddafy’s ‘liberal’ line within the regime. But Sejf’s speech early Monday morning, suggests that The Tripoli Post  is light years ahead of  Sejf. Today’s The Tripoli Post in relation to Sejf is certainly first past the post. In any case, this case indicates how important it is – if we are to understand developments in a country such as Libya whose future will impact heavily on our country, the region and the world – that we look at it closely, very closely.


4 Responses

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  1. John Baldacchino said, on February 25, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    It is interesting how the West (or should I say the North?) is now lost for words and strategy. The problem with establishing “facts” is partly to do with the paralytic political judgement that is manifest in Europe and the US, where now that the tyrants are seen for what they are, the leaders of both the EU and the US are terrified of an uncertain future, especially when the bearded devils (the “communists” and the “fundamentalists”) whom they used to prop up these tyrants, are not so strong amongst the masses who simply have had enough of the lies and torture.

    Manichaeism keeps coming to my mind especially when I read Mario Vella’s assessment of how the Tripoli Post is being judged and pigeon-holed by the BBC. As someone who really sees the BBC as very much trying to keep an even keel, I also think that it is a symptom of how unprepared and disarmed is European political culture. Indeed we all have no answer because neither the Right nor the Left have, in these last 4 decades, tried to really understand what was going on in North Africa and the Middle East (beyond, of course, their own vested interests). It is customary to blame the Right for simply being hostile and selective to the Arab world while it always seems to favour Israel. But actually the Left is equally culpable of never really offering a solid analysis of the political scenario. This was partly due to the fallacies that the Cold War propagated in terms of the Soviet block presenting itself as the “Left” when in effect it was as culpable of meddling with these countries as was Western foreign policy.

    So now here we are lamenting and being scared of “something” — though we are not really sure what this “something” is. One thing seems tangible and that is why the EU leaders met in a state of panic — the North now fears an exodus of “Biblical” proportions heading its way. That’s the gravest worry — which indeed it is, though it’s only a symptom of a bigger story.

    Then again, one asks, why are these countries in this state? And why truth keeps appearing for what it really is? — i.e. a plural event that harbours a multiplicity of possibilities and not simply a Manichaeist right/wrong or good/evil scenario?

  2. Melanie Galea said, on February 25, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    @ Prof. Baldacchino

    Well said, indeed the “problem with establishing ‘facts’ is partly to do with the paralytic political judgement that is manifest in Europe and the US”. We are now paying the price of our tendency to caricaturise a very complex reality.

  3. eurorambo0001 said, on February 26, 2011 at 9:28 am

    Make up your mind man! Is it Gheddafy or Gheddafi or whatever?

  4. editor Watersbroken said, on February 26, 2011 at 10:13 am

    “I have transliterated Arabic words in the simplest way. The Arabist will know, or can easily discover, how they are written in Arabic, and those who do not know the language would be little the wiser had I transliterated them differently.” E. E. Evans Pritchard’s reply to any future pedantic critic of his transliteration of Arabic names of places and persons in his classic study of the Sanusi of Cyrenaica’ is still valid today. Also, in view of the fact that we in Malta are – especially in this moment of crisis in neighbouring Libya – keen on getting whatever fresh news we can get from TV and internet from a variety of sources in various languages, mainly English and Italian, we are bound to come across a broad range of transliterations of the same place and person names in Libya. Again, Evans-Pritchard, writing over 61 years ago, says it all:

    “For the uninitiated it need only be said that the letter ‘q’, which stands for the Arabic letter ‘qaf’, has in Cyrenaica the value of a hard ‘g’ as in the English word ‘goat’, that ‘gh’, which stands for the Arabic letter ‘ghain’, has the value the Parisian gives to the ‘r’ in ‘Paris’, and that ‘, which stands for the Arabic letter ‘ain’, is a guttural sound peculiar to Arabic. I have not been entirely consistent in the spelling of Arabic words in that I have retained the usual spelling of such words as Cairo, Mecca, Kufra, Caramanli, and Koran, and that I have treated some Arabic words as though they were English words, and have, therefore, not italicized them and have given them the common English plural form, e.g. Shaikhs, qadis, Sharifs, mudirs, and zawiyas. I have used the Arabic names of places instead of the classical or Italian names: Shahhat, Marsa Susa, and al-Marj instead of Cirene, Apollonia, and Barce. If I need to excuse myself for this on the grounds that Cyrenaica is today an Arab country, no apology is needed for using the Arab names for the sites of recently built Italian colonial settlements, in naming which the Italians commemorated persons who for the most part might well be forgotten. […] It will be observed that the Italian way of writing Arabic words is different from our way: where we write Suluq, Tubruk, Benghazi, and Jaghbub, they write Soluch, Tobruch, Bengasi, and Giarabub.” Preface, The Sanusi of Cyrenaica, Clarendon: Oxford, 1949, pp.iv-v.

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