Libyan Reflections

Gaddafi's Compound

Col. Gaddafi’s compound at Bab al-Azizia or the “The Splendid Gate” located in the southern suburbs of Tripoli served as the main base for the Libyan leader until his ouster. The 6-square-kilometre base was somewhere most Libyans didn’t want to go when Gaddafi was in power but since his fall and mainly at weekends families and out-of-towners like to walk around the site and stare. They still seem amazed that the uprising was successful – at least in the sense that it got rid of Gaddafi.

One of the biggest attractions is the byzantine network of underground tunnels that connect all of the buildings. Some tunnels stretch to adjoining districts. Gaddafi liked to sleep in a Bedouin-style tent pitched on the grounds. Of course, it was air-conditioned.

Increasingly a visit to the base is perilous because it has been turned into one of the biggest fly tips in North Africa. With garbage collection at best unsure in the capital the base has become the preferred dump. And then there is the added bonus of feeling that you are insulting the former leader by fouling his home.

International workers – and this correspondent – like to criticize the transitional government for lack of coordination between its various ministries and parts. Certainly it is utterly dysfunctional. Spokesmen contradict each other and even themselves several times in the space of a day and the same with ministers and the leading members of the National Transitional Council.

From the bottom up and the top down there is confusion. But it is worth noting, too, that the various international missions and foreign NGO groups also lack coordination. Various UN agencies hardly talk to each other, for instance. And the domestic NGOs are no better: there are three umbrella organizations for domestic civil society groups that I know of alone.

My exclusive in the Daily Beast on the new NGO legislation caused a stir both in Libya and overseas, especially on Capitol Hill apparently, according to a friend of mine at the National Democratic Institute. Not that it made much difference or caused the Libyan authorities to rethink or pullback. Five days after publication, on June 1, they issued the new law anyway. In it there were some details I didn’t have, which, I think, make the regulatory framework they want to impose on civil society even more sinister.

The long and short of it is that funding by foreign NGOs of domestic NGOs is going to be difficult and the Ministry of Culture can always hold funding up by delaying or declining the registration of a foreign NGO. Another worrying area is the inexact wording of what constitutes a “grant”. The legislation bans open-ended cash “contributions” but allows “grants”. The ministry says that grants means project-specific funding. But they don’t define it. How will that play out? Can a project be extended and so too the funding?

Foreign NGOs will have to register in Libya if they want to fund a project and they are required to provide a tremendous amount of detail about themselves – the source of their money, the names and background of senior officers and board members, etc. Many foreign NGOs – and that includes charities, by the way — are just not going to go though all of that. This is how the crackdown on civil society began in neighboring Egypt in the winter.

Apologists for the NTC say that they can’t have just anyone funding domestic civil society and whisper of dark and dangerous forces: the ultimate purpose of the law is to hinder the Qataris just flooding the place with cash or the Russians or Al Qaeda. I can understand the worry about Qatar: the Emirate has been playing hard and fast and expects to get some reward for supplying the rebels with arms and training fighters during the uprising. The NTC has pushed back on the Qataris and refused some of its cash to fund various projects.

But I see the NGO regulations as having a wider purpose than shutting the door on just Qatar. They are part of a Gaddafi-era control reflex that remains deeply embedded in Libya’s body politic.

That control reflex is behind some other disturbing laws – the so-called Glorification law that until the Supreme Court nullified it made it an offence punishable with up to life imprisonment to say anything in praise of the Gaddafi regime or to be detrimental about the uprising; a law that grants immunity to rebels for any crimes committed during the insurrection; and another law, described by Amnesty as “encouraging carte blanche abuse”, instructing the country’s courts to accept as evidence confessions extracted through torture.

Libya’s transitional Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Kib said during a recent trip to London that some of the laws international NGOs have criticized will “disappear from the scene” following the national election. It is a line several members of the NTC have been pushing on visiting American and European officials. They have told them the laws were a mistake.

But if the laws are such a mistake why aren’t they being withdrawn now? And why did the Justice Ministry bothered to defend the Glorification Law before the Supreme Court?

Further, how can the Prime Minister or any NTC member guarantee anything that the next national assembly or government decides to do?

Of course, it is not just on the big public things that you see the control reflex playing out. Journalists have found securing visas very difficult. CNN’s Nic Robertson told me the other day that he applied for a visa back in January and it only came through in March after he asked the interior minister on camera about it.

Foreign NGO workers are also having difficulty. And that was before their visas and journalist visas started to come under the authority recently of the Ministry of Culture, the authorizing authority under Gaddafi. Of course, that ministry is still run by Gaddafi-era bureaucrats.

It isn’t the only one. Go to any ministry and you find the old boys are still in charge. Of course, that in some ways has been helpful in the transition: at least they know how things work (or don’t). But there are no signs, alas, of change in the ministries in terms of fresh approaches and ideas or new ways of doing things.

The control reflex also plays out on the streets with various militias insisting on seeing your permission to film or to take photographs. A Libyan camera crew working for a foreign broadcaster tried to resist this the other week when militiamen told them they couldn’t film in Martyrs Square near the main souk and across the street from Libya’s national museum. A Libyan female member of the crew screamed at them that she had fought in the revolution for a new Libya not the return of the old. Apparently unidentified militiamen tell people that foreigners taking pictures are almost certainly western spies.

Depressingly, not even the NTC spokesman Mohammed al-Hareizi is a fan of the free press. The other week at his regular midweek news conference he lambasted the irresponsibility of the media and talked about how he hoped a future government would crackdown on the press and punish those who didn’t put national unity first, etc. Disturbingly, some local journalists agreed with him – including a reporter from the English-language Tripoli Post, who had urged the spokesman on by denouncing another newspaper for publishing a false report.

Morgan Slips Again

CNN’s Piers Morgan in an exchange tonight with Ted Nugent over the controversial Trayvon Martin shooting, displayed enormous ignorance of the UK laws governing self-defense. The Conservative columnist took issue with Morgan’s suggestion that in the UK the shooter, George Zimmerman, would be charged for the slaying of Trayvon Martin, if it had taken place there.

According to Nugent, you are not allowed to defend yourself in the UK when attacked and are requited to retreat. Incorrect. And Morgan should have pointed out that you are allowed to use in the UK “reasonable force” to defend yourself.

The UK position is this — and I quote from the Crown Prosecution Service’s own website: “Anyone can use reasonable force to protect themselves or others, or to carry out an arrest or to prevent crime. You are not expected to make fine judgments over the level of force you use in the heat of the moment. So long as you only do what you honestly and instinctively believe is necessary in the heat of the moment, that would be the strongest evidence of you acting lawfully and in self-defense. This is still the case if you use something to hand as a weapon. As a general rule, the more extreme the circumstances and the fear felt, the more force you can lawfully use in self-defense.”

Under the terms of the 2008 UK Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, homeowners, for example, who use “reasonable force” to protect themselves against intruders should not be prosecuted, providing they use no more force than is absolutely necessary.

The applicable Florida law is not that dissimilar when it comes to justifiable use of force. Under the state’s law you are allowed to use deadly or no deadly force if you are: Trying to protect yourself or another person from death or serious bodily harm; or are trying to prevent a forcible felony, such as assault, rape, robbery, burglary or kidnapping.

So the question in Florida will come down to whether neighborhood watch volunteer Zimmerman used excessive force when he shot the Miami teen on February 26 at a gated community in Sanford. Was it justified? Exactly the same question that would be asked in the UK. Why doesn’t Morgan know this?






I Say, Old Boy

I am curious what the ratings for Piers Morgan will be for his interview tonight with Simon Cowell. Yes, I know Cowell has a following in the US and his shows have been hugely popular. But should Piers be doing yet another chummy interview with a Brit. The other day he had Rod Stewart on.

So here we have the very British Piers chatting up Brits on a prime time show that was once hosted by the very American and celebrated Larry King.

Noticeably, CNN pushed Piers off for Larry to handle the show when Liz Taylor died (yup, I know another Brit but she had morphed into being an American).

I just can’t see old Piers playing well with Middle America with all of this. Personally, I give him a year.


A 9/11 Memory

I was late talking my son to Takoma Park elementary school and was phoned by my foreign editor who said that in light of what had happened all editorial plans for the day were scrapped. Being the veteran I was I muttered, “Of course,” while wondering what the blazes he was on about. He asked me what I had heard and I said,”Bear with me, things are very fluid here and I need to make some more calls.”

The car radio in my old Fiat Spyder wasn’t working and I drove like the wind back to my home and switched on CNN in time to see the second plane strike the twin towers. I thought to myself, “Al Qaeda.” And then thought, “Life is going to be very different from now on.”

I then worked like fury. Business AM got a European press award for coverage that day. Much later in the day I toured the outside of the still-smoking Pentagon, had a drink on the way home in one of the few bars open in an eerily deserted DC and drafted in my mind my column for the Washington Times Corp. It was a plea not to throw out civil liberties in the fight against terrorism. Next day I tried to explain to my son about the bad people….

Haiti and TV (cont)

CNN International has now some rivals in terms of human-focused TV coverage of the consequences of the Haiti earthquake. BBC World News has had some tremendous pieces in the last 24 hours including a feature on a pregnant woman who was helped to a hospital by the BBC crew and gave birth – two lives in the balance and they came through. CNN International has been using its web site effectively by creatively explaining how ordinary people can have an impact on the crisis with donations.

Fox News had an excellent feature from Jonathan Hunt graphically illustrating how the earthquake has impacted the government of the country with shots of destroyed government buildings. Hunt pointed out that no one knows how many members of the legislative assembly are dead or buried in the rubble.

Aid logistics remain a problem – as does overall coordinated leadership – but the BBC and others now seem to appreciate the scale of the tragedy and the huge challenges posed. They are being less knee-jerk and more thoughtful in their coverage of the aid problems.

One striking thing in this crisis, though, is how the UN leadership has failed to be proactive in explaining what they are doing and what efforts arte being made to coordinate and prioritize. Why no morning press conference in Haiti by top UN communicators? Why no thoughtful daily messaging?

Most senior UN spokespeople appearing on television are not even based in Haiti but are in Switzerland or New York and seem not to be coordinating the information they are putting out and are very light on real-time details. As ever the UN is naïve in its public and media relations work, allowing others to define the space.

Haiti — BBC So Superior?

How depressing the UK and US TV news coverage has been of the Haitian earthquake – and I don’t just mean of the human tragedy of the disaster. US channels, led by Fox, have covered the horror through the prism of American domestic politics, focusing this weekend on why President Obama called in both of his predecessors. He must have some underhand reason for doing so is Fox’s assertion.

The BBC and Sky liked to cover everything with the sub-text of how bad the international organizations are performing. Aid not getting through.  A lack of coordination between the aid agencies. And this from news organizations based in a country that collapses when there is half-a-foot of snow!

There was, in short, a tremendous absence of mature judgment in the coverage. Few reporters offered serious analysis of the logistical nightmare it is to cope with an earthquake of this scale in such a poor country. The distances involved. The consequences of a country losing a functioning government. A port that is hardly operating, A one-runway airport trying to cope with huge traffic without a control tower, etc. The standards of journalism just fall and fall. Obviously there are criticisms to be made of the coordination but the focus just on this detracts from the extraordinary efforts of aid workers and organisations and the ignores the heroism of rescuers and survivors alike.

Too many of the journalists thrown in appear to lack experience and have no stories to compare. And the profession as whole is determined to analyse (without judgment and maturity) and they forget that they are at root just story-tellers and reporters. The superior attitude of BBC journalists is just totally insufferable. Interestingly, the BBC reporters tended to stick close to the airport and not travel as much as journalists from some other news outlets.

By far and away the best practical coverage came from CNN International, which while acknowledging the frustrations of the survivors, preferred to explore the practical and threw up individual stories. CNN International journalists spent less time on making assertions and apportioning blame and more time on securing actual detailed stories. One report focused on a supermarket and looked at the challenges of digging people out, explored who the rescuers were and the people who were rescued.  Their reporters seemed to understand that the scale of the tragedy would throw off any aid effort.

Al Jazeera was also disappointing. Normally the outlet performs well with on-the-ground reporting, although admittedly in its home region of the Middle East or in the nearby Indian sub-continent. This time it kept on securing the services of obscure academics to debate in the studio whether the Americans are good or bad guys.

So my plea to my former colleagues is tell me the story and leave out your pre-programmed ideology, please. And I have another suggestion. Every journalist should be required to leave the profession for a year or so every few years to do a job outside journalism. It would inform their reporting tremendously when they returned. Otherwise we are going to rely increasingly on citizen journalism via social media technology to get the facts.