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Gadhafi’s handling of media shows regime’s flaws


TRIPOLI, Libya >> Even the Gadhafi government escort could not contain his disbelief at the sloppiness of the fraud: bloodstains his colleagues had left on bed sheets in a damaged hospital room for more than a week as evidence of civilian casualties from Western airstrikes.

“This is not even human blood!” the escort erupted to a group of journalists, making a gesture with his hands like squeezing a tube. “I told them, ‘Nobody is going to believe this!”’ he explained, as Elizabeth Palmer, a correspondent for CBS News, later recalled. His name was withheld for his protection.

For the more than 100 international journalists cloistered here at the invitation of the Gadhafi government, its management — or, rather, staging — of public relations provided a singular inside view of how this autocracy functions in a crisis.

Like the fake blood, the Gadhafi government’s most honest trait might be that it makes so little effort at credibility or legitimacy. It lies, but it does not try to be convincing or even consistent.

Government officials often insisted that the journalists watch grisly footage of public beheadings, presented on state television as scenes from rebel-held Benghazi, even though the officials surely knew that all the major news organizations had correspondents in Benghazi confirming that there were no such executions.

The members of Moammar Gadhafi’s fractious family who run the country scarcely pretend to rest their authority on his impotent and unworkable “Jamahuriya” — the hierarchy of popular committees he calls direct democracy.

And as some of Gadhafi’s sons now try to persuade the NATO allies to trust their pledges about a cease-fire, power-sharing or democratic reforms, the opaque and fickle system so vividly displayed to the foreign journalists here may come back to haunt them.

Twenty-six journalists received a firsthand lesson in the Gadhafi government’s decision-making style late on Wednesday afternoon. All were suddenly ordered, without explanation or pattern, to leave Libya the next day. By the end of the night, many had negotiated individual exemptions.

Then at breakfast the next morning, another official announced that the exemptions were no good, a bus was coming to dump the journalists in Tunisia, and it was time to go. But by 11 a.m. it was finally clear that there would be no bus to the border at all. Who in the government pushed for the expulsions and who might have stopped it is impossible to determine.

“It is just the chaos of not having institutions in the country,” said one businessman who has worked closely with the Gadhafi family and government, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “When a decision is made, it is not always a decision in truth. Nobody is really in charge, and decisions are made on whim and caprice.”

The idea of inviting the foreign news media into the tightly closed capital appears to have come from Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, who announced it on television. He rose to pre-eminence in the family in part by obtaining influence over the Libyan government’s investment fund, Western businessmen who worked with him say. He doled out investment opportunities inside Libya to businessmen and officials in the West in exchange for help repairing its relations with European and U.S. governments.

While Seif Gadhafi has sought to project a reformist face to the news media and the West during the crisis, two of his brothers have led the crackdown on the rebels. Khamis Gadhafi leads the most formidable brigade now believed to be charged with the siege of rebel-held Misurata. And Mutuassim Gadhafi is a national security adviser with a private militia now believed to be leading the fighting against rebels in the east.

When four New York Times journalists were captured by a pro-Gadhafi militia in the east, Seif Gadhafi and his staff in Tripoli immediately pledged to protect them, and his chief of staff, Mohamed Ismail, said Seif Gadhafi deserved credit for engineering their release. But the journalists were blindfolded and beaten for several days before Ismail said he could locate them, and they said that during that time they had overheard the soldiers talking about orders from “Dr. Mutuassim.”

For an official press bus trip to the Misurata on Friday, a senior Libyan press official quizzed a New York Times correspondent about his “predispositions” before making a decision about allowing him to board.

After another official then assured the reporter that he had a seat on the bus, a brief power struggle broke out among three Libyan media officials, who argued over the job of doling out the scarce seats to a crowd of journalists vying for them. And in the end an official told the correspondent that he was not on the list after all, having evidently failed the quiz.

Journalists who did make the trip reported that, as is often the case, Gadhafi’s minders had shown them both more and less than promised. Musa Ibrahim, the government spokesman, has said at news conferences each night for weeks that Misurata was largely under government control, except for small “pockets of violence” and some “mopping up.”

And each day, residents of Misurata, eventually with corroboration from journalists who reached the besieged city by boat, have said that rebels still held the city despite heavy shelling from Gadhafi’s forces outside.

The government’s bus tour ended up confirming the rebels’ account as well. At the outskirts of the city journalists found pro-Gadhafi soldiers taking cover from gunfire, including one whose head had been grazed, and reporters said the sound of heavy shelling appeared to come from just out of sight. And when the bus returned to the hotel, government officials could be heard arguing behind closed doors about who was responsible for the mishap.

Libyan officials effectively locked the remaining journalists in their hotel; the Gadhafi government has done the same thing until after midday prayers each Friday, the traditional time for street protests in the Arab world.

But three journalists left behind from the Misurata trip wanted to investigate secondhand reports of a sporadic violence against security forces around the city, so one created a diversion to distract a government minder while the others got away.

What they found, they said, was a city locked down more tightly than ever. Heavy contingents of armed men surrounded mosques, and the streets of rebellious neighborhoods were crowded with the white four-door Toyota pickup trucks favored by the pro-Gadhafi militia.

Many rode with the barrels of their assault rifles pointed out the windows, making no effort to hide the role of their guns in enforcing the uneasy calm in the city.

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