June 16, 2024

Memo From Tripoli: Qaddafi’s Handling of Media Shows Regime’s Flaws

“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.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=3fed61ca40aee4216531f4a9e4433401

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