Defend Truth


‘Churnalism’ in Libya – Garbage In, Garbage Out


Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good and is the head of programmes at the International Fund for Public Interest Media. She is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, a co-founder of the youth-driven, award-winning digital news startup The Daily Vox and a vice-chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute. As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand). 

South Africa insists it has no idea where Gaddafi is and has not spoken to either side of the Libyan conflict for a week now. Foreign media disagree, insisting their well-placed sources say South African officials are brokering a deal to fly Gaddafi away to a life in exile in Venezuela. It is difficult to tell exactly who is lying, but as journalists we ought to know better than to parrot whatever it is we are fed.

Remember Comical Ali, the Iraqi minister of information, who resolutely claimed Iraq was winning the war against the US even as Americans were already breathing heavily down his neck? He was annoyingly defiant to the end. Confidently extolling the permanence of Saddam Hussein’s rule when it was quite clear to everyone else with a pair of eyes that Saddam had lost the war, Comical never backed down from promoting the cause of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf’s daily press briefings in the Iraq war were marked with a bristling defiance. To believe Comical Ali was to believe Saddam Hussein would rule Iraq forever and ever. He displayed an unusual capacity for being entirely unperturbed by reality, a requirement of any government spokesperson. On 7 April 2003, just two days before Baghdad fell to US forces, Comical Ali, bless his stand-up soul, claimed there were no American troops in Baghdad. Not just that, he let the world know that the Americans were committing suicide in their hundreds at the city’s gates. His last public appearance as information minister was on 8 April 2003, when he said that the Americans “are going to surrender or be burned in their tanks. They will surrender, it is they who will surrender”. The way the Iraqi war panned out, there may well have been some wisdom in Comical Ali’s bold declarations but he remains a bizarre icon of the war propaganda machine.

More than 400 years BCE, the Greek poet Aeschylus is recognised to have originally coined the phrase: “In war, truth is the first casualty”. Years later, we chime in agreement, “Preach it, brother!” Yet, the most recent developments in Tripoli show that as much as truth is a casualty of war, the media as an entire industry, is too reliant on various versions of the truth, and just as much a victim of war. And of its own frenetic worship of being the first with the news.

The rebels announced on Sunday night that, in addition to their impressive gains in Tripoli, they had also rounded up three of Muammar Gaddafi’s sons. The eldest, Mohammed was under house arrest and Brother Leader’s heir apparent, fugitive from the International Criminal Court had surrendered to the rebel forces. Just like that, Saif al Islam Gaddafi, he of the wagging finger, and plagiarised LSE dissertation, had just walked to the rebel commanders, head bowed down in humility and said, “I give up. You win.” If it sounds fantastical, it damn well is.

Saif al Islam pranced into the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli early Tuesday morning, grinning broadly at the international media huddled there and predicting confidently that the Gaddafis would yet win the war. The people are on their side, he told shocked reporters. Those same reporters now advise the world thus, “Precisely who is winning the battle for Tripoli, though, is still unclear.” Yet, just a few hours before, all of us lucky enough not to be holed out in the darkness of the Rixos, announced to the world that Tripoli had fallen, three of Gaddafi’s sons were in custody. Of course, the rebels let us believe that as well as Mohammed and the prized scalp of Saif al Islam, erstwhile professional footballer and Hollywood investor extraordinaire, Saadi was also in custody. Go rebels, go!

As morning light casts a glare on the integrity of the rebels, let us not forget that this was not the first time the rebels had displayed some creativity with the truth. Over and over again, media reports of advances by the rebels included the following disclaimer: “Rebel claims couldn’t be independently confirmed and some past claims by rebel commanders have proven to be false or later appeared to be gross exaggerations”. The rebels, I’m afraid, are their own Comical Ali.

No more so than Amnesty International found “indications that on several occasions the rebels in Benghazi appeared to have knowingly made false claims or manufactured evidence”. In this case Amnesty International had investigated claims by the rebels that Gaddafi had ordered rape as a tactic of war. Rebel claims that Gaddafi was using “African” mercenaries were also found questionable by AI.  Those “mercenaries” who had been shown to journalists by the rebels were actually migrant workers.  The rape accusation was bundled with the accusation that Viagra had been distributed to Gaddafi’s troops to encourage them to rape women in rebel-held areas. Rebels dealing with foreign media in Benghazi began showing journalists packets of Viagra, claiming they came from burned-out tanks – though “it was unclear” why the packets were not charred. There has been a pattern of lies spun by the rebels and all of them have been swallowed by the foreign media, gullible creatures that we are. Of course, Gaddafi’s propaganda machine spun just as well, but we take the time and effort to scrutinise anything emanating from the Gaddafi camp. Why were the rebels’ claims of having Gaddafi’s sons in custody not subject to more scrutiny? Why did we not at least clarify that these were claims of the rebels instead of reporting a flight of fancy as hard truth? 

Even the International Criminal Court was swayed by claims that Saif al Islam was in custody.  Following reports that the rebels had captured  Saif al Islam Gaddafi, the ICC prosecutor said, “Saif was captured in Libya. We have confidential information from different sources within Libya confirming this. It is very important to make clear there is an obligation to surrender Saif to the ICC in accordance with the Security Council resolution.”

Boo bloody hoo.

Let’s not forget that this is not the first time prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has been on the wrong side of compelling evidence. Just two weeks before Amnesty International released its report refuting the rape allegations, Ocampo told a press conference, “We have information that there was a policy in Libya to rape those who were against the government. Apparently he [Gaddafi] used it to punish people.” Yes, the ICC is clearly an independent, autonomous body free from pesky political influence.

Just two days ago, Gaddafi’s own information minister, Moussa Ibrahim evoked fond memories of Comical Ali when he told the BBC that 65,000 professional and trained soldiers loyal to Gaddafi were inside the capital ready to rise up and defend Tripoli. He was resolute in stressing that the Colonel remained the leader of Libya. With rebel forces battling Gaddafi forces just a few meters from where he spoke, Ibrahim clearly has reality perception issues of his own. The Gaddafi camp will continue spinning, yes, but it’s time we wised up to the realities of being spun from two sides. And maybe tried some “journalism” instead of “gigo” mimicry. DM


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