Tripoli Isn’t Cairo.

Pro-government protest swallowed up by square

Pro-government protest swallowed up by square

Tripoli, May 4.

To provide some perspective: some wire agencies and newspapers today have talked about hundreds of protesters rallying to the Libyan government’s side in a standoff with militias over a law that would disbar Gaddafi-era officials from political office or from working in the bureaucracy, even if they assisted in the uprising that toppled Col. Muammar Gaddafi 18-months ago. The law if passed tomorrow (Sunday 5 April) would led to the government having to quit and about half of the Congress. The Islamists would benefit the most in the long-term.

This is Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square yesterday afternoon and a picture of the pro-government demonstration. I estimate there were less than 200 then. It filled up a bit more when about a hundred pro-militia protesters showed up. This is hardly ordinary Libyans rallying to the government — there were more people shopping in the nearby souk.

For more background on this political crisis you could read my VOA article from Thursday — the situation hasn’t changed much, although there have been plenty of behind-the-scenes negotiations. And below some paragraphs from the piece:

“If the militias succeed in forcing the General National Congress (GNC) to pass a law barring Gaddafi-era officials from being lawmakers or working for the government, Libya could be plunged into an even deeper crisis with no clear guidelines on how to proceed.

Politicians warned that approval of the new law could throw the country into chaos. But militiamen blockading the foreign ministry on Thursday dismissed those fears.

Allowing regime holdovers to stay in the government or legislature would be an insult to the “martyrs” of the rebellion that ousted Gadhafi 18 months ago, the militiamen say.”

Visit Tripoli See Fireworks…Including RPGs

Hard not to chuckle at the ill-timing of a Daily Telegraph travel piece that extolled the virtues of Libya as a destination for tourism. The article was posted online on the night of Nov 4/5 and opened: “Tripoli, Libya’s capital, is known for its walled medina and relaxing old-world ambience, and is home to a number of grand mosques, statues and fountains.”

It is home also to several unruly militias. As the article was posted a couple of rival state-sanctioned militias started skirmishing — it lasted  for more than 12 hours — in Tripoli, firing rocket-propelled grenades at each other, leaving nearly a dozen wounded and adding to ordinary Libyans’ sense of powerlessness.

The puff piece was part of a PR effort encouraged by the Libyan government to entice tourists to the North African country. A few months ago USA Today ran a similarly premature travel article urging tourists to visit the country.

Question: Do travel editors pay any attention to what is actually happening in a country?

To Publish Or Not

 Beirut

I wrote recently for the Daily Beast about the assassination of Lebanon’s intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan and what it means — or could mean —  for the country as it tries to avoid spillover from the sectarian war raging in neighboring Syria.

The piece opened thus: “Ten days on from the Oct. 19 bombing, Lebanese security experts are still painstakingly collecting evidence and placing it in large bags under two white tarpaulins drawn across a courtyard, where they are trying also to assemble what remains of a car. After The Daily Beast arrived at the scene and started to take notes, skittish intelligence officials decided to haul this correspondent in for three hours of questioning.”

The backdrop to the story was ironic for me. As many of you know Newsweek will cease publishing the magazine at the end of the year and will go totally digital. Newsweek will be a separate subscriber-only online product but with some stories posted on the Daily Beast as well. I think the strategy a good one and trust Tina Brown’s commercial sense. However, if the magazine had ceased publication in October my troubles with the Lebanese intelligence officials in Beirut would have increased.

This is the email I sent my foreign editor explaining:

“Don’t wish to sound like a Luddite. But the only thing that satisfied the Lebanese intelligence guys about my bona fides was a copy of the latest edition of Newsweek! They complained that my International Federation of Journalists press card could have been forged. Remained unimpressed with my UK passport. And said web sites could easily be spoofs so I told them to get the latest international edition of the magazine. The first store apparently had sold out — good and bad news, I supposed.”

 

Libya: Back To The Future

UN Envoy Ian Martin: But where are the women?

 

Tripoli

With prayers and a band playing the national anthem the Libyan election commission opened the media center for the July 7 polls. It is being housed in the Tripoli International Convention Center right in the compound of Gaddafi’s favorite hotel in the capital, the luxurious Rixos hotel.

It seems an odd place to have a media center for the first free elections in almost half-a-century. The hotel, close to Muammar Gaddafi’s compound of Bab al-Aziziya, is very much associated for ordinary Libyans with the Gaddafi family. It was here that Saif al-Islam, the despot’s son, gave his more rip-roaring threatening performances during the rebellion.

The Rixos was also where the regime insisted foreign journalists stay and it was here that 30 of them were trapped during the uprising. They were basically locked in and many of them feared they would be used as human shields when the rebels launched their assault on the capital. The reporters and cameramen were prevented from leaving by Gaddafi goons.

So the association for many people is not a happy one. But apparently the commission has decided to ignore that dark past and go in for a spot of re-branding with fine posters celebrating the sacrifice of mothers during the uprising. There is also a stirring poster of women of all ages with the title “Rebelling To Be Heard.”

A pity then that we didn’t hear from any women on the rostrum all evening — just men. We had the election commissioner, the Prime Minister, UN Envoy Ian Martin, etc. But no women.

For that matter there weren’t that many foreign journalists among the great and good and diplomatic corps who came. That may have something to do with the fact that international journalists have been finding it extremely difficult, in some cases impossible, to secure visas. The deputy Italian ambassador told me: “We have had a big problem. The Libyan embassy in Rome just wouldn’t give out visas. We have managed to secure a few but it is still not resolved.”

That is being echoed by journalists and officials in London, Paris, Washington DC, etc. Some things never change. The king is dead, long live the king.

 

Celebrity Outshines Country

Tripoli

When asked where I am from, I now just say, “Chelsea” and then there’s instant understanding. For a Spurs fan this is irritating but one has to do what works. When Libyans on the street ask me where my wife is from (of course they ask me not her and quite right, too) I say, “Obama”. Again, this gets the job done much better than saying U.S. or America. Cameron, Nick Clegg, Mitt Romney, Santorum — absolutely no recognition. Beyonce works, though.

What a strange world we live in now: celebrities and sports teams have greater name recognition than countries.

I am thinking of trying Simon Cowell next.

DSK — Sarkozy Did It

Let’s get this right. The former head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is arguing that “political enemies” linked to Nicolas Sarkozy and the French President’s ruling UMP party choreographed the scandal triggered by his alleged assault on a hotel maid.

The basis for his accusation? Evidence, he says, that his cell phone and text messages were being monitored by his political enemies and a “victory dance” two employees at New York’s Sofitel hotel were caught doing when the police were summoned.

He now says he doesn’t believe that the “incident” with Nafissatou Diallo was a setup but he argues that the subsequent “escalation of the events”, including his arrest and imprisonment were “orchestrated” by political opponents.

Let’s unpack some of that. According to journalist Edward Jay Epstein writing in The Guardian, DSK “accuses operatives linked to Sarkozy of intercepting phone calls and making sure Diallo went to the New York police, thus sparking an international scandal.”

The only evidence he provides for this is a warning from an unnamed friend that a copy of an email his wife, French broadcaster Anne Sinclair, had sent him had been found by a sympathizer inside the UMP party headquarters in Paris.

That’s the only evidence on the monitoring side of the accusation that he provides: an unnamed friend and one email (not a cell phone text message).

And the dance? What on earth could two male employees being doing a jig about? It could be anything at all and nothing connected with DSK, of course. One of them could have got laid the night before, got engaged or won the lottery! Got a great deal on a car! Secured promotion, got a new job. Anything. Or maybe they were celebrating the fact that the police were called in to investigate a nasty assault on a maid by a rich, powerful, arrogant SOB, who thinks women are just “material.” And they didn’t need to feel this way because they were in the service or pay of the French Secret Service.

None of what DSK says passes the laugh test. And what his attitude conveys is this: that there had to be foul play because the law doesn’t, or shouldn’t, apply to the powerful; the law is for the little people.

Sleight Of Hand Reporting On Murdoch

The Guardian is running a big story today on how U.S. shareholders are “deeply troubled” by the testimonies provided by Rupert and James Murdoch before the Leveson Inquiry.

“U.S. shareholders are said to be worried that the Murdochs’ testimony this week has raised new questions about the management of the company and posed potential threats to other areas of its media empire,” the report claims.

And then it goes on to quote from a “senior policy analyst with Change To Win (CtW), a U.S. advisory group that works with pension funds with over $200bn in assets.”

According to the analyst, Michael Pryce-Jones, the Murdochs’ testimony raised two immediate concerns for shareholders: the future of the firm’s control of broadcaster BSkyB and the ethics of top management.

I am sure some shareholders are nervous about what is unfolding in the UK vis-à-vis phone hacking, public inquiries and the on-going investigation by broadcast watchdog Ofcom. But are they the immediately relevant shareholders?

The Guardian should have explained who Change To Win is? It isn’t just some kind of neutral advisory group. It was founded in 2006 as the CtW Investment Group and, as the organization explains, it “works with pension funds sponsored by unions affiliated with Change to Win, a federation of unions representing nearly 5.5 million members, to enhance long-term shareholder returns through active ownership.”

The leadership council of the Change To Win federation consists of Joseph Hansen of the United Food and Commercial Workers; James P. Hoffa of the Teamsters; Geralyn Lutty of the United Food and Commercial Workers; Mary Kay Henry of the Service Employees International Union; Arturo Rodriguez of the United Farm Workers of America; Eliseo Medina of the Service Employees Union; and Tom Woodruff of the Service Employees International Union.

So, I think, we can take it that there is no love lost for Rupert M. from such an organization. Does that mean their views should be discounted? Of course not. If the union pension funds have investments in the Murdoch media empire, they have every right to voice their opinion and concerns. But it would have been more honest journalism for The Guardian to explain exactly who Change To Win is and where they might be coming from.

Of course, if the paper had done so, then the story would have been weakened. Maybe that explains the omission. And also why the report glides over as quickly as it can this bit of contradiction: “Nonetheless News Corp shares rose during the three days of testimony, rising 0.7% to $19.76 on Thursday.”

Hmm. In the end, the only important News Corp. shareholders are the top five in voting terms: the Murdoch family and Rupert Murdoch, who control 39.74 percent of the votes in News Corp.; Alwaleed bin Talal Alsaud (7.04 percent); Invesco (1.8 percent); Bank of New York Mellon (1.19 percent); and Taube Hodson Stonex (1.07percent).

 

The Digger And Leveson

Day 2 of media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s testimony before the Leveson Inquiry. What a difference in appearance and manner from last summer when he testified before a House of Commons committee. The Guardian described his Commons testimony in July as a “complex performance of shame, wryness and amnesia.”

I saw something else – a man in shock, and an old man at that who just didn’t look like he was altogther there. Was that an act to garner sympathy and wrong-foot his pursuers? Murdoch-haters would say it was, but I am not so sure.

This time round the wryness is still there and so is the shame but the amnesia seems on the whole to have gone. He looks fitter and much more together. And his frankness is appealing, especially when it comes to his relationships with prime ministers.

And he is utterly right about government regulation of the press when he says the laws as they stand now are “perfectly adequate” but “lack of enforcement” is the problem. Do we really want the political elite to have control of what papers say or more importantly don’t say?

But was he convincing on whether there was or was not a cover-up at senior levels at News International of the phone-hacking scandal? He places all the blame with management at the News of the World. But having worked at News International, I find it hard to believe that James Murdoch and other corporate executives were so in the dark. And if they were, then there was monumental incompetence.

Government Subsidies For Local Newspapers?

Government subsidies for the local press? Government encouraged or supported community media trusts? Of course, my American libertarian friends would throw their hands up in horror at such ideas. But UK Conservative MP Louise Mensch is pushing the government to do such things.

Mensch is worried rightly about the consequences of the decline in the UK of the local press and what it means for local government accountability and democracy. She wants a serious review and is calling on the government to introduce subsidies and tax advantages for local newspapers.

And she has a point about trying to create a level playing field for local newspapers. The country is awash with local Pravda-type propaganda newsheets put out by local authorities and financed by council taxpayers. Local newspapers have to compete also with regional BBC television, again funded by the public.

Britain’s local press is dominated by a handful of newspapers groups — Johnston Press, Newsquest and Northcliffe. And they have been slashing away at their properties. Newsquest’s ownership of the Herald Group in Glasgow has been nothing short of a disaster and both the Glasgow Herald and the Sunday Herald are pain shadows of what they once were. Johnstone has failed to revive the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday. Down south there have staff cuts, papers getting thinner or being shifted from daily publication to weekly.

Of course, in these straitened times the big newspaper groups have suffered dramatic falls in advertising revenue and huge drops in profits. But there has been a marked lack of thought and creativity by managements as well.

Citizen journalism isn’t filling the gap.

So would government subsides bring government control? That doesn’t have to be the case. And there are examples of where it has worked — in Italy for instance.