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