While reporting in Libya, journalists aren't only contending with stray bullets, restricted access, and the threat of detention. They must also separate fact from fiction in the face of government and rebel spin. Two recent reports -- one in The New York Times and one in The Los Angeles Times -- give examples of the kind of propaganda efforts both sides are using to try to influence the coverage of the civil war. What the reports suggest is that while the Qaddafi regime is blatantly lying about matters such as civilian casualties and rebel ruthlessness, the opposition is engaging in more conventional and less egregious forms of wartime propaganda by promoting an idealizing, black-and-white vision of the rebel cause and occasionally inflating their military might.
In the Times today, David Kirkpatrick explained what it's like for him and the other hundred or so international journalists in Tripoli to report on the Libyan uprising and military intervention while confronting Muammar Qaddafi's propaganda machine and government minders. Qaddafi's regime lies, Kirkpatrick says, "but it does not try to be convincing or even consistent." He gives some examples:
- Contrived Evidence of Civilian Casualties: Kirkpatrick tells of Qaddafi officials planting fake bloodstains on hospital bedsheets to provide evidence of civilian casualties from Western airstrikes. Libyan state television also regularly shows alleged victims of airstrikes, but, as the Associated Press notes, rebels accuse Qaddafi's forces of taking bodies from the morgue and presenting them to reporters as civilian casualities--an allegation supported by a U.S. intelligence report.
- Empty Claims of Rebel Brutality: Government officials show journalists state television footage of public beheadings in rebel-controlled Benghazi, even though the officials are aware that international correspondents in Benghazi have reported no evidence of these executions.
- Mind Games: A Libyan official told a Times reporter that some people speaking over Internet connection from the beseiged Western city of Misrata were actually government agents trying to trick journalists--a claim the journalist later refuted.
- Claims of Military Victory: The Libyan government maintains that Misrata is largely under government control but residents and journalists who manage to enter the city contradict these claims. A government-sponsored bus tour to Misrata recently backfired when journalists came across pro-Qaddafi troops running from rebel gunfire at the outskirts of the city. In another government trip to the city of Zawiya, reporters spotted pro-Qaddafi supporters grabbing groceries off army trucks as apparent compensation for their show of solidarity.
Reporters in eastern Libya, meanwhile, must also wade through rebel propaganda, though it differs from the Qaddafi regime's variety:
- One-Sided View of Uprising: Last week, David Zucchino at the LA Times reported that while new rebel media outlets provide Libyans with information they never had before, these sources also present a biased view of the opposition fight. The radio station Voice of Free Libya, for example, offers no pro-Qaddafi reporting or commentary, makes no references to al Qaeda, Islamic extremism, or tribalism, and paints the uprising as a unified Libyan "war against a totalitarian regime" rather than a civil war. Qaddafi, Zucchino says, "is portrayed as the devil, along with his grasping sons and scheming henchmen in Tripoli," and "the opposition's Western Hemisphere-educated, English-speaking spokesmen spin and cajole international reporters," though these reporters don't have their movements restricted like their colleagues in Tripoli.
- Misleading Reports from the Front: In a recent report in the Times on the rebels' ragtag fighters, C.J. Chivers noted that while the rebels insist they have a large special forces unit, his observations on the battlefield suggest otherwise. Back in March, The Guardian's Peter Beaumont called reports of fighting near Tripoli--"filtered through opposition voices"--"misleading, creating an impression that has crept its way inexorably into the international media. Pitched battles are described breathlessly as if they were major confrontations." Zucchino of the LA Times picks up a rebel newspaper in Benghazi and observes photos of rebel fighters in gun trucks heading courageously to the front. "Panicked retreats not pictured," he adds.