The Libyan Rebels' Manipulation of Foreign Media

Reports of Qaddafi's imminent capture and the arrest of his sons raise credibility questions

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Of all the breaking news updates on the battle for control of Libya--and there have been many in recent days--perhaps the most unsatisfying was an Associated Press tweet on Tuesday that read, "BREAKING: Spokesman says Libyan rebels have a 'good idea' where Moammar Gadhafi is and will catch him." Had you proceeded to the accompanying article, you would have learned that the rebel official, Ali Tarhouni, did not elaborate on Qaddafi's whereabouts, though he did say, "We don't have any doubt that we will catch him." Well, that's comforting.

Throughout the Libyan uprising, the Qaddafi regime has repeatedly come under fire for its blatant propaganda, while the rebels have been accused of less egregious behavior like exaggerating their military might and failing to provide proof of alleged acts of brutality by the regime. In recent days, however, as the rebels strive to root out the last remnants of the Qaddafi regime, the opposition has demonstrated a concerning habit of feeding update-hungry foreign journalists false, misleading, or unsubstantiated information that often appears designed to advance the rebel cause.

As opposition fighters stormed the capital last week, for example, rebel officials told reporters that Qaddafi's sons Mohammed, Saif al-Islam, and Saadi had been arrested, prompting the international media--including the Wire--to run with the news, which seemed to spell the regime's impending collapse. Soon, however, Saif al-Islam appeared as a free man in Tripoli, Mohammed escaped to Algeria, and Saadi spoke with CNN and Al-Arabiya, indicating that he's not in rebel hands. While it's still unclear which sons escaped from custody and which were never arrested in the first place, the AP suggests that rebel leaders deliberately refrained from announcing that reports of Saif al-Islam's arrest were unconfirmed in order to "ease Qaddafi loyalists' grip on power," helping persuade 30 officers guarding Qaddafi's Tripoli compound to lay down their arms before the Libyan leader's son surfaced in public.

Over the last week, meanwhile, opposition officials have claimed to have Qaddafi surrounded three times--twice in Tripoli and now in the desert town of Bani Walid. The rebel boasts have been disarmingly unequivocal ("They are together. They are in a small hole. Today we finish.") and the media reports breathless (if sometimes skeptical). But, headlines be damned, Qaddafi remains at large. On Thursday, rebel finance minister Ali Tarhouni proclaimed that, "as of this moment," the leaders of the rebels' National Transitional Council would be moving from the eastern city of Benghazi to a "free" Tripoli. "Rebels Announce Transfer of Leadership to Tripoli," AlArabiya declared at the time. Yet The New York Times reported yesterday that the NTC's top civilian officials have yet to arrive in the capital, "citing personal safety concerns even as they pronounce the city fully secure." Opposition leaders have understandably not broadcast this delay.

It may be unfair, of course, to chalk these examples entirely up to deliberate media manipulation by the rebels. It's difficult for opposition leaders to control the message and make sure it's always accurate when they're operating in the fog of war and when anyone in their sprawling and divided ranks can speak to a reporter. Still, some are getting increasingly frustrated by all the reports that have turned out to be duds in recent days. As New York Times producer Michael Roston tweeted today, "USELESS BREAKING NEWS: Qaddafi might be some place in Libya, we think."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.