A Letter From a Pressman in Tripoli

From Tripoli, The Guardian’s Peter Beaumont has a thoughtful report on what conditions are like on the ground for foreign journalists covering clashes in Libya—a report that unsurprisingly differs from the picture of a free-roaming press being pushed by the administration there. Beaumont argues in that it’s virtually impossible for journalists to move freely around the country—a claim backed up by reports from Al-Jazeera, among others—and that reporters from his own paper have been detained on a number of occasions. Reporters from other outlets have been physically assaulted and threatened. And those reporters cowed by the violence might in fact be helping Gaddafi’s efforts.

When Gaddafi’s men are helpful, it’s sometimes in the most sinister of terms. A government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim, speaking to a scrum of journalists ahead of an anticipated speech by Gaddafi at the hotel warned photogrtaphers not to go up to the first floor to take photographs, saying: “If you go upstairs, you’ll be shot dead immediately. I’m just warning you. I’m tyring to be helpful.”

At the same time, Beaumont notes that the regime offers a regular stream of logic-defying, ridiculous press conferences, all leading him to ask: “why are we here?” And then to answer: “Journalists are in Tripoli to provide a backdrop to the regime’s pronouncements. We are not only the enemy—to be denounced in performances filmed by state TV—we are a captive audience which is seen by Libyans each day meekly writing down the regime’s pronouncements.” It is ultimately a pretty grim predicament that Beaumont describes, where only the most fearless of journalism can make a difference, and anything else might bolster the regime.

In writing and recording what the spokesmen and Gaddafi say, we supply a vicarious credence to their claims no matter how extraordinary.

The alternative to risky attempts at independent journalism—which has the potential of consequences for both interviewer and interviewee—is what the access the government provides, which is increasingly little.

Each day journalists gather at the Rixos to see if there will be a bus trip to a location where - inevitably - they will be met by a staged demonstration of regime loyalists who have often been paid to attend or given a holiday from work to attend.

Journalism then is a question of enduring the shouted pro-forma praise for the regime and waiting for an encounter with those who oppose Gaddafi, even in these circumstances, when people will come and speak quietly amid the clamour.

As the country becomes ever more difficult to report from, what is happening to ordinary Libyan civilians is ever more effectively being censored.

And at some point, by our very presence, in being ineffective we will become accomplices in that censorship.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , ,