One Libyan Battle Is Fought in Social and News Media

Middle East
The New York Times
February 23, 2011

CAIRO — While Al-Jamahiriya, the Libyan state-owned television channel, was broadcasting nonstop patriotic songs, poetry recitations and rowdy rallies supporting the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, on Tuesday, Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite channel based in Doha, was showing images of angry Libyan demonstrators throwing shoes at a giant street screen carrying live pictures of Colonel Qaddafi’s speech.

The contrast highlighted a fierce battle between Colonel Qaddafi’s supporters, who were using the state-run news media, and Libyan protesters, who were turning to social media and the foreign news media, to win over hearts and minds, inside and outside Libya.

This tug-of-war has been going on since a public uprising started on Feb. 17 calling for Colonel Qaddafi’s ouster. His rivals have clearly made a global impression through multiple amateur video Web posts, visceral pictures, twitter posts and dozens of heartfelt interviews on Arab television stations telling stories of a ruthless repression unleashed by troops loyal to Colonel Qaddafi.

But the Libyan leader, who has ruled this tribal society unopposed since 1969, has demonstrated that he will not easily be outmaneuvered. His television channels appealed on Tuesday for amateur images showing support from his base and beseeched viewers to place them online, too.

Government channels have run a written appeal: “For the dear brothers whose hobby is photography and video taping, please put up videos online that show the massive support for our beloved leader.”

In Colonel Qaddafi’s all-out media counteroffensive, a sports channel and a music channel that are popular among the young have instead been showing 24-hour programs of poetry reciters eulogizing his achievements and films of pro-government rallies waving his pictures.

Al-Jamahiriya 2, another government channel, has been broadcasting patriotic songs describing Colonel Qaddafi as “father of the nation” and interviews with Libyans thanking him for all he has done for the country over the four decades of his rule.

Colonel Qaddafi has taken his media critics head-on. Minutes after Al Jazeera broadcast the shoe-throwing scenes, state-run Libyan television showed images of chanting crowds insulting Al Jazeera.

“Oh you dirty lying Jazeera, we want none other than our leader,” shouted crowds of several hundreds in what Al-Jamahiriya said was the central Green Square in Tripoli.

In a bold-font subtitle that filled half the screen, and referring to another Arabic-language television station, Al-Jamahiriya asked, “Why doesn’t Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya show the thunderous voice of the Libyan people who support the leader of the revolution?”

Pro-Qaddafi officials and analysts have been appearing on state television shows calling for calm and “opening a dialogue.” They have reminded viewers that the Qaddafi government is spending “hundreds of millions” of dollars on making life better through investments in infrastructure, roads, schools and universities. At the same time, taking their cue from Colonel Qaddafi’s speech, in which he called the protesters “rats” and “mice,” they dismissed his critics as “dogs and “criminals.”

But some people associated with the Libyan news media say that after 41-years of Colonel Qaddafi’s rule, the public has grown so used to official propaganda that no matter the scale of the new campaign, Libyans are unlikely to be much impressed.

“Years of marketing Colonel Qaddafi using similar tactics made most of the official media carry little credibility,” said Khaled Mahmoud, who was previously bureau chief in Cairo for Jana, the official Libyan news agency, and a correspondent for Libyan state television.

“Those are heavily controlled media outlets,” Mr. Mahmoud said. “That’s why you see them taking pictures only in limited areas. You’ll never see the Libyan TV cameras stepping outside affluent areas or touring the real side streets of Tripoli.”

Official Libyan news media reactions to seven days of protests echoed those of Tunisia and Egypt in their first few days of demonstrations, when state-run channels attacked the foreign news media and belittled pro-democracy protesters as “kids,” “saboteurs” and “foreign-funded agents.”

At one point during the Egyptian protests, state-run television and private channels owned by backers of President Hosni Mubarak broadcast reports that pro-democracy leaders had been handpicked by Israel and trained in the United States and Qatar to destabilize Egypt. The report was later found to have been planted by Mr. Mubarak’s state security police.

The Qaddafi government has similarly painted the revolt as a foreign plot to destabilize the country.

Jana reported this week that the Libyan government was fighting an “Israeli inspired” scheme to create anarchy. The report asserted that Israel was financing “separation forces” in the Arab region and that there were no genuine popular grievances behind the protests.

Al Shams, a newspaper controlled by an arm of the Libyan Information Ministry, reported on its Web site that the government had exposed “foreign network elements” in several Libyan cities.

Mr. Mahmoud, now an analyst on Libyan affairs, said opposition news media outlets were based mainly in Europe and a few other Arab countries, with no presence in Libya. The main ways for the protesters to communicate with the outside world, he said, remain the online social media and pan-Arab channels like Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, the BBC Arabic service and Al Hurra, which is financed by the United States.

One of the most popular sites for the protesters has become, which congregates twitter posts and helps to galvanize Colonel Qaddafi’s scattered opponents abroad in English and Arabic. Protesters have posted videos to the site, filmed on mobile phones, showing the violent crackdown in several Libyan towns.

Other sites include Almanara and Libya Alyoum, based in London. These have carried statements and reports from Libya and are widely credited with spurring support for the protests among Libyans abroad, especially in the United States and Europe. Among their most powerful weapons have been crudely filmed videos and images of civilian deaths and injuries. The amateurish quality of these has given them an added psychological strength and impact in contradicting the clean and professional pictures on Libyan television.

Whichever side wins this media battle will probably be well on the way to ruling the country.

  1. #1 by undertaker888 on Thursday, 24 February 2011 - 4:41 pm

    viva la tunisia
    viva la egypt
    viva la libia
    viva la bahrain
    viva la yemen
    viva la syria
    viva la saudi
    viva la malasie

  2. #2 by tak tahan on Thursday, 24 February 2011 - 4:54 pm

    At least Arab muslims are more aware and alert in their inhabited lands.They have come to realise what is good for them and family that lie ahead in future.What is still happening to their fellow brothers and sisters’s wisdom state of mind in bolehland?Tiada apa attitude lo.Never mind la..we still have two national local bakeries like Gardenia for Gardenia and Stanson Bakeries for High 5 made applicable to our bread and butter issue here.Not enough satisfaction ar..roti canai lo with teh tarik..

  3. #3 by yhsiew on Thursday, 24 February 2011 - 5:55 pm

    Over time more wonders will come out of the social and new media. Did not Gordon Brown’s sister-in-law use a combination of new and old media (Internet and radio) to rock Taib’s property empire?

  4. #4 by tak tahan on Thursday, 24 February 2011 - 11:00 pm

    Ya yhsiew,you’re right.With some ganja,they need to be rocked like hurricane-Scorpion


  5. #5 by raven77 on Friday, 25 February 2011 - 12:28 am

    GADAFFI…isnt this guy a good friend of MAHATHIR…

  6. #6 by k1980 on Friday, 25 February 2011 - 10:49 am

    //Bahrain is a classic case of the US empire of bases colluding with an unsavory feudal monarchy/dictatorship. Naturally the US Joint Chiefs of Staff favors dictatorship-dictated “order and stability” – as well as old colonial power Britain; the massacres of civilians in Bahrain – and Libya – have been brought to you by the Sandhurst military academy and BAE systems. //

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