LIBYA MEDIA WATCH: Gadhafi’s spin machine backfires; updates on missing journalists

Joe Pompeo
April 11, 2011

As the civil war in Libya grinds on, the foreign journalists covering the conflict have become a story within the story. Libyan strongman Muammer Gadhafi has granted official credentials to more than 100 such journalists—with the none-too-subtle aim of shaping their coverage via tightly controlled state-sponsored itineraries; meanwhile, the Gadhafi regime has set about detaining media workers who cover the conflict from a more independent vantage.

In today's New York Times, David Kirkpatrick appraises the uneasy state of media relations in Libya. (C.J. Chivers' latest dispatch from the front lines is buried deeper inside the paper.)

Kirkpatrick focuses on the Gadhafi regime's clumsy and ultimately self-defeating efforts to spoonfeed coverage to the international press corps.

Exhibit A: The regime's botched attempt to dramatize collateral casualties from Western airstrikes by showcasing hospital bedsheets purportedly spattered with human blood. As Kirkpatrick notes, even Gadhafi's own officials couldn't refrain from calling out the fraud. "This is not even human blood!" the journalists' state handler conceded while giving them a tour.

"As the incident of the faked blood shows, the Qaddafi government's most honest trait might be its lack of pretense to credibility or legitimacy," writes Kirkpatrick. "It lies, but it does not try to be convincing or even consistent."

Another example: "Government officials often insisted the journalists watch grisly footage of public beheadings, presented on state television as scenes from rebel-held Benghazi," he writes, "even though the officials surely knew that all the major news organizations had correspondents in Benghazi confirming that there were no such executions." (The piece rounds up plenty of other examples of this maladroit would-be manipulation of the news cycle.)

Meanwhile, word came Sunday night on the whereabouts of four journalists captured by Gadhafi forces while reporting last week near the eastern city of Brega. The latest reports indicate that the group--which includes James Foley, a freelancer for the Boston-based website GlobalPost; Clare Morgana Gillis, an American reporter on assignment for The Atlantic; and two photographers, Manu Brabo of Spain and Anton Hammerl of South Africa--has arrived safely in the capital city of Tripoli. Libyan officials are reportedly holding the four in a government detention center.

"We still don't have all the answers as to their whereabouts, their conditions, and the time of their release," GlobalPost's executive editor, Charles M. Sennott, told The Boston Globe. "But we continue to be in touch with the State Department, the Turkish embassy, Libyan government and many helpful journalistic colleagues on the ground who have all helped us to keep open the lines of communications."

The Atlantic issued a separate update.

"We're relieved to hear that at least three of the missing journalists have been seen in official detention in Tripoli," said James Bennet, the magazine's editor, in a statement. "We're calling on the Libyan government to release all four as quickly and safely as possible, and, in the meantime, to let foreign diplomats or journalists visit them."

Meanwhile, Altaf Qadri, an award-winning AP photographer (pictured above) who became separated from his colleagues near the eastern city of Ajdabiya, has now surfaced, and is reportedly safe and sound. Qadri was en route to AP's offices in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, the newswire reported. "We're very pleased that he has emerged unharmed while covering the violence in the area," said his editor.

But the fates of several other missing journalists are still unknown. One of them, American freelancer Matthew VanDyke, has not been in contact with his family since March 12, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). He is believed to have been swept up by pro-Gadhafi forces—the same chain of events that's landed other journalists in state detention.

"We are deeply concerned for the safety of Matthew VanDyke," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ's Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, in a statement over the weekend. "We call on the authorities in Tripoli to make clear whether they are holding him and to do all in their power to ensure his safe release."

(AP photographer Altaf Qadri, left, hugs one of the men who helped bring him back to a hotel in Benghazi; AP Photo/Ben Curtis)