In the wake of the current crisis in Libya, the government allowed foreign journalists into Tripoli for the first time in decades. The Qaddafi regime has, however, attempted to exert tight controls on what those reporters cover. New York Times Cairo bureau chief David Kirkpatrick talks about the difficulties of reporting under the regime's intense scrutiny.
BOB GARFIELD: In the battle for public opinion, even tyrants don't like bad press. But that is precisely what Muammar Gaddafi was getting during a month of civil protests and insurrection by Libyans determined to overthrow his regime. Foreign news organizations, long shut out of Libya, were getting most of their information by telephone from protestors and armed rebels. So Gaddafi’s government invited foreign journalists to cover the story from Libya itself, with the help of government minders eager to portray the revolution in a very different light. This set up a game of cat-and-mouse, with journalists trying to report under the watchful eyes of regime henchmen and regime henchmen trying to make sure the reporters didn't get a chance to see anything that could make the regime look bad. Consider, for example, a Ministry of Information-sponsored trip to the previously rebel-controlled city of Zawiya, during which the minders failed to notice New York Times journalists wandering into a burned-out police station. Reporter David Kirkpatrick was one of them.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: I was running around trying to evade my government minders, as I usually do. And our resourceful photographer, Moises Saman, wandered into a burned-out police station, where he found an office with photographs strewn all over the floor. A number of them were unmistakably pictures of people who have been tortured. He took a photograph of those photographs on the floor, which made a kind of naturally occurring montage, and we used that in our story to point out that this baleful human rights record is likely to hang over the Gaddafi regime as it now tries to reach out and assure the West that it’s ready for a transition to democracy.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, taking a busload of Western reporters to a scene of incriminating evidence [LAUGHS] is certainly a PR don't. How did the Gaddafi government react to your piece in The Times?
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: The government didn't have any complaints. Instead, they've been very concerned about something they say I've done that I can't figure out that I've done. A couple of men in the government PR office said that I've reported about the rebel-held city of Misurata, as though I was in the city, when I wasn't. I don't think I've done that. I've done a lot of reporting, talking over the Internet and other ways, with people who are there to try to get their description, and I try usually to note that their stories are impossible to confirm because the government won't let us go there.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, that would be a breach of journalism ethics if you did it, but it’s kind of hilarious that in the face of incriminating photographs that’s what the government would be concerned with.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: In some ways, it sort of encapsulates the way this country operates. In the West we're accustomed more or less to the rule of law, but here threats and promises can't be trusted and punishments are likely to be arbitrary. So if you do do something wrong, that’s probably not what you'll get in trouble for, and if you don't, you have no idea what you'll get in trouble for.
BOB GARFIELD: We were sitting around the office just marveling at this particular story ‘cause we felt as though that you and your colleagues on the ground in Libya were, you know, something like the East Germans who went into the Stasi offices after the fall of the Berlin Wall. You’re the first Western eyes into this sick regime. Are you feeling like that?
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: We are getting the first glimpses, in many ways, of things that have been hidden, but we're only seeing a little bit here and there through the cracks, to be honest. I often have joked to my colleagues that I feel like my role here is theater critic. They stage these elaborate [BOB LAUGHS] demonstrations for us, and increasingly the people who are – who are putting them on don't even pretend they're not staged. You know, the - a busload of people will show up, pretend to be residents of a certain city, shout about Gaddafi for a little while, and then before we even get onto our bus and leave, they've all piled into their cars and buses and made their way out of town. Or, in another instance, we’re carted out to a soccer field in the middle of the night and a huge crowd is waiting to demonstrate. And then, as they're trying to rush us back onto the bus, we see that the whole crowd has been waiting for their chance to pick up bags of free groceries at the back of the field.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so I get that the government is untrustworthy, but are they also such rank amateurs that they [LAUGHS] think a roomful of Western journalists aren't going to figure out that they have not, in fact, presented the habeas corpus?
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: In a word - before they invited the press in, frankly we were getting accounts only from people who hated the government 'cause they were the only ones who would talk to us, and their accounts were inflammatory. They realized that having no members of the foreign press here, only the other side was getting any word out. And I think they feel like the strategy of inviting us in has been, all in all, successful. At least they get a little bit of voice in the coverage.
BOB GARFIELD: Another story that got a lot of international media attention, because it all - it played out in front of a room filled with international media, was that of Iman al-Obeidi, a woman who burst into a room full of journalists and accused Libyan security forces of raping her. Were you there that day?
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: I was there. She burst into the hotel restaurant, where many of us were having breakfast, and as she began to tell her story of being kidnapped and raped for two days by members of the Gaddafi militia, security forces in the hotel raced to try to grab her. And to our surprise, many of the people who had previously seemed to be hotel staff began working in tandem with the security forces to try to silence her and remove her from the room. One young woman who worked at the coffee bar tried to pull a dark coat over this woman’s head, calling her a traitor, and tried to pull her out of the room.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you’re not a newbie, David. Has there been anything in this experience though that shocked even you?
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: The Iman al-Obeidi experience was pretty tough to watch. Some of the reports of torture that I've heard have been very affecting. I will say though that it is incredibly moving when I am within a few yards of a government minder and some Libyan risks their life to tell me that the – in the theater that’s being put on is not the whole story, that other Libyans feel differently, that things are gonna change and that they look forward to that day. It - it’s hard to describe - how gratifying that is.
BOB GARFIELD: David, thank you very much.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK: You’re welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: David Kirkpatrick is the Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times. He spoke to us from Tripoli.