< The Dangers of Reporting from Libya


Friday, March 18, 2011


BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. On Friday, the government of Muammar Gaddafi announced a ceasefire a day after a UN Security Council resolution called for a no-fly zone and military intervention to protect Libyan civilians. Whether this will open up the country is not clear. Throughout the month-long Libyan uprising, Gaddafi has shown no tolerance for journalism. Last week, Libyan authorities detained and beat reporters from BBC Arabic and subjected them to mock executions. A few days after their release, Al-Jazeera cameramen Ali Hassan Al Jaber was killed in an apparent ambush. Speaking on state radio Thursday, Gaddafi called on Libyans to attack press vehicles and destroy broadcast stations. Yet, Libya’s government announced Friday that it would be releasing four New York Times reporters who disappeared earlier this week. In the chaos, some major news organizations are pulling their reporters out of Libya, which could lead to a near total information vacuum. Ben Wedeman is CNN’s senior international correspondent and the first American journalist to enter Libya when the protests began in February. He and his crew have been leery of the government from the start.

BEN WEDEMAN: We entered the country technically illegally, without visas, and the government made it very clear from the beginning that we would be considered outlaws and, in fact, cooperating with Al-Qaeda. Otherwise, certainly the threat of bombing by jets of the Libyan Air Force was ever-present whenever you were very close to the front. It was fairly chaotic, in the sense that this was not, at least on the rebel side, a rational, organized, military force. They were just really a bunch of guys who got guns and jumped into their cars and drove to the front. Now, I've seen something like that in Sierra Leone and in Afghanistan and various other places, but somehow it seemed a bit more immediate because, unlike in Afghanistan or Sierra Leone, there was nowhere to hide. You felt very exposed on the highway in the desert.

BOB GARFIELD: For the last couple of weeks you've been spending time with the anti-Gaddafi forces, but I'm wondering if before that you were at all harassed by Gaddafi’s state security people, street thugs, anybody who - was unhappy about your presence there.

BEN WEDEMAN: I was only in Eastern Libya on this particular visit. And, if anything, I was overwhelmed by friendliness, by gratitude. They were incredibly appreciative, the journalists were there. And, in fact, I was pelted, but I was pelted with candy and dates when we entered Benghazi. There was nothing but a warm welcome there.

[BARKING DOGS IN BACKGROUND] We know that there was the threat that the Gaddafi regime had sent out people specifically to tail journalists, and in some cases to kill them. And I think that’s what happened to Hassan Ali Jaber of Jazeera, the cameraman who was killed outside of Benghazi the other day.

BOB GARFIELD: You've been in the east with the rebel forces. Tell me what you’re hearing from colleagues in Tripoli and further west where Gaddafi forces can keep a closer eye on them.

BEN WEDEMAN: We're hearing about the plainclothes policemen going from door to door in Tripoli, looking for people who had contact with the foreign media, who may have passed information to the foreign media. There’s a real worry that if Muammar Gaddafi is able to reestablish his control, lots of people are gonna be rounded up and many will be executed.

BOB GARFIELD: And the journalists themselves, trying to report in Tripoli, are they being hampered in filing outside of the country?

BEN WEDEMAN: They're having a very difficult time. My colleague Nick Robertson, who’s in Tripoli, his producer was kicked around by plainclothed Libyan security. It’s a very difficult situation. They can file whatever they want, but they have so little freedom of movement that it’s very difficult to actually get any solid information. They're just fed a lot of propaganda. Fortunately, they're professionals and they're, they're not eating it.

BOB GARFIELD: Gaddafi himself had made various paranoid and preposterous accusations that the western press were agents of, as you said, Al-Qaeda and also were substantially behind the unrest. You know, in a certain way I guess that’s true because foreign press coverage was in many ways the oxygen behind the flames of insurrection. It sort of emboldened people to take to the streets, knowing that the story would be told outside of Libya. To what extent did the press become kind of part of the story it was covering?

BEN WEDEMAN: Really the - the acts that required the most courage, the most bravery were the ones at the very beginning, the people who came out and protested against the regime. And that was at a time when there was no media whatsoever there to cover it. The - the media showed up a week or so after the rebellion began. And I don't really think that we did provide the, the oxygen for the rebellion, because the rebellion was based not upon media coverage, but a good deal of unhappiness and dissatisfaction with the lot of people in Libya.

BOB GARFIELD: What happens though as journalists are leaving the country? Does it leave behind the sense that the efforts of the Libyan protestors are invisible to the outside world?

BEN WEDEMAN: The difference, I think, is that whereas before the people in Eastern Libya were unknowns – they were phone numbers we were getting, we were calling them up and getting information from them – now we know them much better. The familiarity of the media with the situation on the ground is much better. So I think even if it happened that there were no journalists left in Eastern Libya, I think the amount of information and the quality of the information coming out of there would be much better than it was before.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, Ben. Enjoy your few days of R&R, and we hope to speak to you again.

BEN WEDEMAN: I look forward to it.

BOB GARFIELD: Ben Wedeman is the senior international correspondent for CNN.