< A Unique Opportunity for Propaganda

Transcript

Friday, August 26, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

This week in Libya the regime of Moammar Qaddafi continues what seems to be an inevitable slide into the dust bin of history. On Monday, Libyan rebels confidently sent out a mass text reading in part, “We congratulate the Libyan people for the fall of Moammar Qaddafi.”

REPORTER:

We're hearing reports that two of Moammar Qaddafi’s sons have been arrested by the rebels, including Seif al-Islam.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

But on Tuesday Seif al-Islam was clearly free. New York Times Cairo bureau chief David Kirkpatrick is in Tripoli where he says information and misinformation comingle  freely. For instance, when journalists were held captive at a hotel in the city, the standoff ended with a sudden change in allegiances, when some journalists gave the Qaddafi loyalists guarding the reporters the gift of truth.

DAVID KIRKPATRICK:

Later that day a couple of Arabic language fluent journalists sat down with them and said, look around you, The big guys have all left. They’ve left you here alone. How much longer do you think you - you can take this.

And according to several journalists who were there, the chief guard around that point broke down in tears. They surrendered their weapons, not to the rebels but to the journalists.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

We reached Kirkpatrick on Thursday at his hotel as fighters run by outside his window and reporters battled for clarity.

 

DAVID KIRKPATRICK:          

Libya is a unique opportunity for propaganda, because the Qaddafi regime maintains such an information vacuum. That is no independent press, people afraid to talk candidly on the phone, so many street informants that it’s dangerous to even talk candidly on the street or in cafes. In that atmosphere there’s a real opportunity for other parties to throw up their own stories. Anybody can say anything.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

In your piece you say that the rebels have offered their own far-fetched claims like mass rapes by loyalist troops issued tablets of Viagra?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK:

That is definitely one of the most lurid bits of propaganda to come out of this. I don't think there has ever been any evidence of systematic or mass rapes by either side in this conflict. And I heard those claims being repeated at very high levels by the west. And what that goes to show is that even NATO is not immune to indulging in a little bit of propaganda.

You know, they – they have a - an uncorroborated and slightly outlandish report, but they'll grab it if it helps to drum up support at home and among the Libyan people for their cause, the cause of the rebels.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

One notorious example was the capture or maybe non-capture of one of Qaddafi’s sons, Saif al-Islam. The rebels claimed they’d captured him but after that he made a public appearance claiming that his father's government was still in control. Did that shake the confidence of Libyans in the reliability of the rebels?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK:

I know it led to some finger pointing within the rebel leadership. And to me what's most amusing is the public explanation that one of the top officials made in a – in a press conference in Doha. he said, well this was sort of misunderstanding. We tried to tell the International Criminal Court we had an unconfirmed rumor that he was captured.

They mistakenly said that we had told him he was captured, but then you know what? It worked out okay for us because this report led to some good news; we had recognition from more countries, more embassies defecting to our side. And many commanders turned over. So we thought, well, let’s let it go.

It was the closest thing I've ever heard to a  propagandist justifying a mistruth because it was good propaganda.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

What’s it take to file accurate reports, with all the lying on all sides?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK:

Well, it's very difficult to file accurate reports because it's block by block as far as safety. So we wake up every day with an  ambitious agenda of stories we'd like to pursue, and to a significant extent what we end up writing about is what we can reach. We only see the trunk and not the whole elephant.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

For some days it certainly seemed as if the victory of the rebels was inevitable and that it – it still is. But, you know, you hear Wolf Blitzer saying, oh, it could go this way, it could go that way, depending on what's going on in a particular block in Tripoli at a given time. And I wonder if the need for novelty in rolling news reports can lead people to make too much of an incident that doesn't deserve it.

DAVID KIRKPATRICK:

I think there is intrinsic in the nature of 24-hour cable news an insatiable appetite to make a big deal out of a little deal. That said, this particular situation, I think, is vexing for them and for us because, you know, we reported the rebels have taken Tripoli, and it really looked like the rebels had taken Tripoli.

And then the next day we tried to venture out of our hotels and we found, you know what, it's not safe at all; the rebels don’t control Tripoli and neither does Qaddafi.

And since then it's been a little bit of a seesaw. And so, while intellectually we'd like to be moving on to the next stage, you know, okay, who are the rebels? Now are they going to abide by these promises of inclusivity and civility and democracy,  we keep getting pulled back into: hold it, do they have the neighborhood around our hotel?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

In your piece you quoted Rob Crilly of The Daily Telegraph of London who wrote on Tuesday this week, “Twitter and 24-hour rolling news channels and sat phones are still useless against the fog of war.”

There are criticisms of the coverage of the American civil war in the wake of the brand new technology of the telegraph that the reporters had declared Atlanta won for the north two weeks before the Northern army got there.   

DAVID KIRKPATRICK:

Well, that’s right. The other night I was talking to a gentleman who lives right off of the Central Square here in Tripoli. And he said that Saturday night, the night that Tripoli really rose up, he had watched the Qaddafi forces massing in Green Square, ‘cause they knew the rebels were coming;  they knew people were gonna rise up and come to Green Square.

He’s sitting at home in his apartment around the corner, this gentleman, and he's watching Al-Jazeera. And Al-Jazeera says, the rebels are here, they’re in Green Square! So he rushes out to the street. No rebels.

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

Apparently had tipped off Al-Jazeera that they were coordinating their movements, they expected to be in Green Square. And Al-Jazeera went with it.

Moments later, sure enough, the rebels show up from four different directions. And a half an hour after that the Qaddafi troops had evaporated, says this witness.

And it's a remarkable episode because it shows you the sophistication that the rebels have about using the media to their advantage.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

If Al-Jazeera doesn't see it, then it didn't happen.

DAVID KIRKPATRICK:

That's very true in this part of the world.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Thank you very much.

DAVID KIRKPATRICK:

Okay, talk to you soon.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

David Kirkpatrick is The New York Times Cairo bureau chief.