My following article appears today on ABC’s The Drum:
The latest BBC interview with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, situated in a fancy restaurant on the Mediterranean, was painful to watch. Clearly delusional and blaming drug-addled youth and al-Qaeda for the ongoing revolution in his country (which he claimed he didn’t lead, the “masses” were in charge), the Western media have labelled him “mad” and “dangerous to know”.
This is not a defence of Gaddafi or the countless crimes against his own people or outsiders. He should be held to account for all violations of international law. The crimes are multiple and must be punished.
Events in Libya are moving fast and I won’t try to cover all the latest developments here. Al-Jazeera English’s daily Libya blog is one of the best places to read all the news.
But it’s remarkable to watch how quickly Western leaders and commentators, many of whom have celebrated the increasing ties between them and Gaddafi, are suddenly calling for his departure.
It was seemingly only yesterday that a newfound, supposedly reliable ally in the “war on terror” had come in from the cold, rejected terrorism, ditched a nuclear program, given information about Pakistan’s covert nuclear program under AQ Khan and perhaps most importantly opened up Libya for Western businesses. The EU was only recently so keen to sell arms to Tripoli.
In the last years the West embraced Gaddafi and his children because he was the kind of dictator we could deal with. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has visited Libya a number of times as an employee of J.P. Morgan, who pays him millions of pounds annually, to push for banking opportunities.
Newly released documents indicate the Blair government wanted to provide weapons to Tripoli and train some of its military.
The current British government of David Cameron has at least acknowledged the moral bankruptcy of backing autocrats in the Middle East and not believing Arabs can rule themselves freely but his message was contradicted by travelling across the Middle East with arms dealers in tow to sell weapons to “democratic” Kuwait.
Why am I bringing all this sordid history up now? Because it shows the hypocrisy at the heart of Western political and media elites and how language is abused and selectively applied to the “good” and “evil”.
Gaddafi is clearly “mad” while western presidents or prime ministers, who have caused far worse carnage in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Palestine, are still given respectful interviews in our media. It is inconceivable that an ABC or Murdoch journalist would openly call Tony Blair, Barack Obama, David Cameron or Nicholas Sarkozy a “war criminal”, even after they leave office. “We” are always better than “them”, a spurious democratic imprimatur that protects officialdom in our system. Killing literally hundreds of thousands of civilians – far in excess of anything Gaddafi could imagine – is ignored to maintain access to the powerful.
I’m reminded of the former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan in January. Aside from a few questions about the Iraq war, the two laughed about Condi’s piano playing. There was nothing about her authorising torture against terror suspects after 9/11 or the huge civilian death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Western commentators will show respect to a person such as Rice because she seems reasonable, calm and doesn’t dress in overly colourful garb like Gaddafi. This elaborate dance, an old tradition to protect a fellow powerful figure you’re likely to see at a cocktail party or media event in the weeks or month ahead, is what allows Rice to escape scrutiny, mockery or justice while somebody like Gaddafi is thrown to the wolves when he’s no longer useful. Piers Morgan is unlikely to catch him in Hollywood anytime soon.
This is despite the fact that she has unarguably caused far greater trauma to far more people than Gaddafi or Mubarak. Journalism all too often reflects and defends the government line because reporters inhabit a world where that is their only logical perspective.
As Salon’s Glenn Greenwald recently wrote:
“…’The American press’ generally and ‘senior American national security journalists’ in particular operate with a glaring, overwhelming bias that determines what they do and do not report: namely, the desire to advance U.S. interests… America’s “establishment media” is properly described as such precisely because their overarching objective is to promote and defend establishment interests in what they report to – and conceal from – their readers.”
When it comes to Libya, how many Western media services even irregularly published voices from inside the country – bloggers, dissidents etc – that questioned how ordinary Libyans felt about the ever-increasing Western largesse being showered on Tripoli? US foreign policy, post the 2003 Iraq war, dictated a friendlier face towards “mad dog” Gaddafi and many Western writers bought this spin and transmitted it to their readers and viewers (“Gaddafi has a terrible record but in a remarkable transformation has ditched his nuclear program and embraced Tony Blair…”).
While the situation on the ground in Libya is dire and the border with Tunisia, reports Robert Fisk from the scene, is a seething mass of bodies, it seems everybody is now an expert on Libya. Foreign military intervention is being openly discussed, despite many Libyans being openly opposed to it and The Los Angeles Times editorialising against imposing a no-fly zone.
It’s time to put Libya into some perspective. Gaddafi may be a brute and autocrat but this didn’t suddenly occur in the last weeks. Good journalism has a responsibility to treat its subjects equally, not to the whims of US foreign policy (and therefore Australian foreign policy). Unfortunately, too many in the West view our behaviour as central to any radical change in the world; independence is unimagined.
The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman wrote this week that the Arab revolutionaries were inspired by Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009. The “Arab” youth in his head said:
“Hmmm, let’s see. He’s young. I’m young. He’s dark-skinned. I’m dark-skinned. His middle name is Hussein. My name is Hussein. His grandfather is a Muslim. My grandfather is a Muslim. He is president of the United States. And I’m an unemployed young Arab with no vote and no voice in my future.”
Even though he was in Cairo during the uprising against Mubarak, Friedman clearly missed the deep anger at Washington’s funding and backing of the Egyptian dictator. Friedman is a “serious” writer, regularly re-published in the Fairfax press here, who argued Israel, the Beijing Olympics, Google Earth and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad were the main causes of the Arab protests. Seriously.
Finally, some ground rules for decent journalism in the Middle East in the midst of the new Arab world:
1) Not every story is about Israel and its “security” (do Palestinians not have security concerns, too?). Base yourself somewhere other than Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Try the West Bank, Beirut, Cairo or Tunis.
2) “Moderate” Arab regimes are anything but so don’t simply repeat State Department lines about “stability” in the region.
3) Libya’s Gaddafi is a delusional thug but he’s an easy target. So is Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Don’t ignore such regimes but remember our own responsibility for backing Arab autocrats in the name of “stability”.
4) Locate and cultivate local sources in multiple countries that send reliable information, therefore reducing the need to send in white correspondents for a few days, with no real knowledge of a nation, on the frontline of a battle they don’t really understand.
5) Don’t fear everybody who talks about Islamic democracy or democracy with an Islamic hue.
6) Don’t continually quote or interview Western officials who have spent a lifetime implementing failed and Israel-centric policies in the Middle East and frame them as “experts”. I’m talking about people such as neo-conservative, former George W Bush official and Barack Obama adviser Elliot Abrams and former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk. Their time has past. Move on.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution