Between You and Me
The detainment last week of New Zealand filmmaker, Sharon Ward, by Libyan security personnel is one example of many that highlights a collective feeling of anxiety over international media coverage of the country’s domestic challenges.
The whimsical nature of Libyan authority, characterized by stories of harassment, abduction, detainment, and even torture, feeds into this coverage, throwing into doubt the prospects of Libya’s success.
Meanwhile, the economy remains stagnant due in part to perceived instability and an evident lack of protection under the law.
Ward was supposedly detained for filming without authorization in the area of Janzour, Tripoli’s military academy that now houses 3,000 Tawerghan refugees, a fraction of the 40,000 that are living in temporary housing throughout the country.
During the war, Qadhafi used the northern town of Tawergha as a base for operations against Misrata, just 38km away. Many Tawerghan men joined Qadhafi in his weeks-long siege of the town, during which time Tawerghan fighters are said to have raped Misratan women, a sin not forgiven in Arab society. That the UN has found little evidence of this has done nothing to prevent Misratan militiamen from destroying Tawergha and victimizing its residents in retribution.
A sensitive issue to be sure, but in my view, the reason for detaining Ward stems not from a deliberate effort to hide the truth, but rather a genuine concern that foreigners form their opinions of Libya based on faulty and exaggerated media stories.
My car ride with two police officers one evening from Tripoli’s Martyr’s Square to the Rixos Hotel is a case in point. Upon discovering my line of work as a journalist, the two men complained that foreign journalists have a tendency to distort the facts. “If someone lights a firework, the media reports it as a rocket attack,” one of them said to me.
This sentiment was echoed in my conversations with political candidates, government officials and local organizations, and there is some truth to it. Journalists are notorious for dramatizing or exaggerating an event or issue in order to make a story more appealing. Worse is the need to make news out of something that is in reality of little significance.
Election time is particularly ripe for inaccurate and simplistic reporting, because of the ever-shortening news cycle. Four days, and international journalists have come and gone. Most do not stay for the official announcement of election results, forcing them to make an educated projection and generally leave it at that. Coupled with, for example, not knowing the language or understanding the complexity of local dynamics, this only widens the margin for error.
Witness the widespread assertion that a liberal coalition won the election. Very few actually acknowledged that “victory” actually depended on the stated loyalties of 120 independent candidates, many of whom until now have made no indication of this.
Misleading the public, mistakenly or not, simplifies and distorts what is otherwise a complex reality that only stands to benefit from honest and critical analyses.