Qaddafi as media star, or media villain? Whatever the answer, he still knows how to play them


Back in 1984, then NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw conducted a live satellite interview with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, Mr. Brokaw noted that the United States and Libya had many differences, one of them being how the colonel spelt his name.

Mr. Qaddafi responded that those differences would exist as long as Zionists and imperialists controlled the US media and financial system. Asked by a reporter after the interview whether he had understood Mr. Brokaw’s question, Mr. Qaddafi retorted: “Of course I did, do you think I would answer a question like that?”

Two years later, Mr. Qaddafi refused to condemn attacks on the airports of Vienna and Rome by operators of notorious Palestinian terrorist Sabri al-Banna a.k.a. Abu Nidal in which the 11-year old daughter of Associated Press Rome bureau chief Victor Simpson was killed.

Although accused of having supplied Abu Nidal with the weapons for the attacks, Mr. Qaddafi seemed privately disturbed by the incidents but suggested that he would prefer to be demonized in the media rather than grouped with the United States and Israel by condemning the Palestinian terrorist.

Little has changed since the 1980s in the Libyan leader’s handling of the international media. For much of his career, Mr. Qaddafi has courted journalists, particularly those of the female persuasion. A man with a flair for the theatrical, whose clothes are designed to cast him as a striking figure, Mr. Qaddafi had the makings of becoming a news star.

Yet, he systematically refused to accept advice that he engage Western consultants to train him to capitalize on his potential. As a result, Mr. Qaddafi like in 1984 lacked throughout his career the language and imagery to address his audience in terms that it would understand or couch his positions in ways that would not provoke immediate condemnation.

In the current crisis, the most serious challenge to his regime since he came to power in a coup 41 years ago, Mr. Qaddafi still sees the media as an asset to counter the more savvy media policy of his opponents in the Benghazi-based National Transition Council. Yet, like in the 1980s, Mr. Qaddafi knows what he wants but has no idea how to achieve it.

Foreign media invited to Tripoli to cover his side of the story complain bitterly that the colonel’s spokesman grants them no access beyond daily briefings. With sixteen journalists covering the conflict reported missing or detained by his forces, Mr. Qaddafi has moreover hardly endeared himself to the media.

More worrying is the fact that as he fights for his survival, he appears to see journalists as hostages he may be able to leverage as potential diplomatic bargaining chips.

Detained journalists are often initially held near the frontlines and treated roughly before they are transferred to the political leadership in Tripoli. The list of sixteen does not include six Libyan journalists whose whereabouts are unknown.

Among the journalists missing or detained is Lotfi Ghars, a dual Canadian and Tunisian national who was working for Iran’s state-run Al-Alam television news channel when he was arrested on March 16 while trying to enter Libya from Tunisia. Two American reporters were taken into custody on April 5 by Mr. Qaddafi’s forces: James Foley, a photojournalist working for GlobalPost, a Boston-based news agency; and Clare Morgana Gillis, who was covering the fighting for The Atlantic and USA Today. A third American being held is freelance journalist Matthew Van Dyke.

In phone calls to her parents, Ms. Gilles said was being treated humanely in a women’s jail in Tripoli. Mr. Foley and a Spanish photojournalist told their families that they were incarcerated in a Tripoli military prison. Other journalists being held by Mr. Qaddafi include Austrian-South African photojournalist Anton Hammerl, British journalists Nigel Taylor and Kamel al-Tallou, who works for Al Jazeera and MBC’s Mohamad al-Shuwayhadi and Magdi Hilali.

Mr. Qaddafi appears to have concluded that he will neither be able to compete with the lively press being developed by his opponents nor win the media battle for hearts and minds. The dire diet of pro-Qaddafi rallies on state-run Libyan television and the poor quality of the paper and lack of color in government-controlled newspapers contrasts starkly with the burst of enthusiasm and creativity of an emerging free press in rebel-held Benghazi.

Yet, publicity hungry as always, Mr. Qaddafi wants to ensure that he has his say in largely unsympathetic stories and can leverage journalists as hostages if and when the opportunity arises. It is the media policy of a man apparently willing to fight to the end but like in 1986, when he refused to condemn Abu Nidal, willing to pay the price for making a stand.

(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached at: questfze@gmail.com)