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Benjamin R. Barber Headshot

Western Media in Libya: Journalists or the Propaganda Arm of the Insurgency?

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There is no better proof for the gullibility (or worse) of Western media than how easily they have been manipulated by rebel spokesmen for the Libyan insurgency. From Sunday through Monday evening for more than 24 hours, broadcast and cable media outlets reported the rebels had captured Saif Gaddafi and his brother Mohammad. Why did they believe and publicize these unconfirmed reports? Because the rebels told them so. No photos, no audio, no proof. We even heard that Saif's capture was confirmed by International Criminal Court prosecutors who apparently believed what they were told too. Let's hope they have higher standards when they put the Gaddafis on trial or the tyrant may be acquitted!

As we all know now, it was just propaganda. The rebels were apparently making it up as they went along. Saif was in custody. Mohammad too. Maybe a third brother. Or not. And... Oops. Mohammad escaped! Oops, there's a Western reporter, talking to Saif Monday evening, riding in an armored Land Rover! And that's him too, atop the shoulder of cheering supporters. Somewhere in Tripoli Monday night (I guess in the 10% of the city that isn't under rebel control). On one cable outlet, they interrupted their continuing celebration of the victory of Tripoli to announce the truth about Saif -- the anchors didn't blink an eye. One even asked whom we should believe! A stunned "expert" who happened to be on the air suggested maybe we should believe our eyes since Saif was on screen smiling at his armed entourage as the anchor earnestly posed the question.

But seriously folks, what has happened to journalism? NATO quickly morphed from being a force to protect civilians under its UN and Arab League Mandate into -- 15,000 sorties later -- being the air arm of the rebel ground forces, casualties be damned. In the same spirit, it looks now like the Western media have become the propaganda arm of the insurgency. Or maybe it's just terminal laziness.

Several weeks ago the insurgents murdered their own military commander, Abdel Fattah Younis, apparently because he was from the wrong tribe. We have never heard an explanation, and questions from the media have stopped -- even when rebels say happily from Green Square today that all is unity, there will be no tribal issues in their ranks, and Libya is one country. No one asks "is that why Libya was divided for centuries into an Eastern region called Cyrenaica with its capital at Benghazi and a Western region called Tripolitania with its capital at Tripoli?" Or asks why rebels representing a united Libya have replaced the Green national flag with the royal flag of the Monarchy that ruled from Benghazi in the 50s and 60s until in was overthrown by Muammar Gaddafi in his 1969 "nationalist" revolution! Or mentions Libya's 140 tribes, and Berber/Arab resentment and the racial divisions between the black African Taureg from the Southern Sahara and some of their racist adversaries in the Arab north.

Months ago, a few staunch reporters on the ground in Benghazi noticed that East Libyan Jihadists who had been killing Americans in Afghanistan were returning to Libya to give the amateur rebel military some backbone and professionalism. Have you heard any anchor recently ask about them? How they will fit into the new national government? And what about those illicit black ops on the ground training, guiding if not leading insurgent militias? Isn't the official policy no Western ("neocolonial") boots on the ground?

Washington intelligence experts have also been asking how we can prevent the new government from "selling" weapons to al Qaeda later on. They are not asking why we should worry about al Qaeda buying weapons from the government when they could be part of the government that owns the weapons.

By the time you read this, Saif may be really captured; or may be leading a firefight. Or dead. But you won't really know what's true and what isn't, because journalists (newsreaders?) have stopped asking hard questions, stopped acting as our skeptics of conscience. Instead they are chatting with insurgent cheerleaders who just happen to speak English (and therefore are unlikely to come from the jihadists camp!) and passing on whatever rebel spokesmen feel like telling them.

Every armed conflict is accompanied by a propaganda war, and I don't blame the rebels for reporting gossip or lies or wishful thinking if it serves their aims. That's war. But I expect our supposedly free and informed and sophisticated journalists to be cynics and to ask the hard, unsentimental questions, so that we can all get some sense of what the actual facts are before making our judgments and can help the rebels deal with all he hard problems they will face after Gaddafi is gone.

As we have seen in the case of Saif's "capture," passing along propaganda can only hurt the credibility of the rebels we claim to want to help. We help the good guys by holding them to the same standards of truth we demand of the bad guys. We serve the public by reporting only what we know and have confirmed is true. That's called journalistic integrity. Which, however, has apparently gone missing -- not only at the News of the World and Fox, but in mainstream broadcasting as well. Shame.