freelance journalist Matthew VanDyke travelled to Libya on March 6 to
report on the North African nation's nascent uprising -- at that
point in its third week. He went there to do the job he loved in a
region he had long studied, and to "witness history in the making,"
his mother, Sharon told me about three months ago as we tried to
figure out what had happened to her son. VanDyke has not been heard
from since March 13. The sole piece of information about the 31-year
old reporter since then has been a single unconfirmed sighting in a
Sirte prison about two months ago.
VanDyke's case is not unique. The Committee to Protect Journalists'
(CPJ) research shows that at least 15 journalists and media workers
are currently missing or in government custody in Libya. Since
mid-February, CPJ has documented nearly 100 attacks on the press.
They include five fatalities and 50 detentions, as well as assaults,
attacks on news facilities, jamming of satellite news transmissions,
destruction of equipment, disabling of the Internet, obstruction, and
is deliberately engaged in a policy that targets journalists, detains
them, and finally uses them as lures to engage the international
community. Libyan officials have maintained throughout that the
detention of journalists -- and the abuse that inevitably follows -- is
the work of rogue elements. Such baseless claims are belied by the
sheer number of detentions, the absence of any public government
condemnation of the practice, and perhaps most tellingly by the
political leadership's repeated use of detained journalists to
project state power and enter into negotiations where Tripoli holds
few, if any, other bargaining chips. Moreover, Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's "good
cop/bad cop" tactics, where militiamen detain journalists at the
frontlines, physically assault them, hand them off to the political
leadership who treat them with a modicum of respect and negotiate
their release to foreign diplomats, have occurred one time too many
to be unscripted.
Tripoli holds the dishonor of being at the top of the list of
regional press freedom violators, others are not far behind. As far
as governments are concerned, journalists seemingly fall into one of
two categories: as pawns to be utilized in political posturing and
negotiations or as an irritant to be eliminated. As such, journalists
from Egypt to Bahrain, from Syria to Yemen have been brutalized with
appalling frequency. Consider one telling statistic: Of the 19 global
media fatalities recorded by CPJ in the first five months of this
year, 13 (or 68 percent) occurred in the Middle East and North
cursory examination of the record reveals that regional governments
(chief among them the one in Tripoli) resort, as a matter of policy,
to cruelty to intimidate, disinformation to mislead, and manipulation
to curb critical coverage.
The cruelty in Tripoli was plain to see when it subjected detained reporters to mock
executions and when it released four Al-Jazeera journalists one
afternoon only to re-arrest them later the same day. Though Libya has not
monopolized callous behavior; government proxies in Yemen have long
threatened journalists with abduction and murder, but in recent
months the threats have expanded to include the rape of reporters'
wives and the dismemberment of their children.
is also engaged in a deliberate campaign of disinformation, obscuring
facts and at times outright falsifying them to meet narrow short-term
objectives. For a month and a half the government lied, assuring all
that South African journalist Anton Hammerl was in custody and would
be permitted to call his family "shortly," when it knew all along
that he had been shot by Gaddafi's militiamen and left to die in
the Libyan desert on April 5. The truth only got out after three
other journalists that witnessed the killing were released from
custody and left the country. Similarly in Bahrain, the government
maintains that a newspaper publisher and a blogger who died in
government custody and whose post-mortem pictures show indisputable
and extensive signs of torture, expired, respectively, as a result of
kidney failure and sickle cell anemia complications.
with the goal of making reporting conditions as arbitrary as possible
are also hallmarks of Qaddafi's strategy. One April afternoon, over 20 journalists in Tripoli were asked, for no apparent reason, to
leave the country within 24 hours. The next morning, the deadline had
been extended by two days. Ultimately, all were permitted to stay.
Saif al-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader's second-eldest son, hailed his
invitation to some 100 international journalists to report from
Tripoli as an opportunity for the world to see reality on the ground.
Yet one international journalist described the conditions under which
she and her colleagues were forced to operate as "seemingly designed
to exhaust the reporters, more suited to a detention facility, which
this kind of is -- a plush expensive one. But the journalists in
Tripoli are completely at the whim and mercy of the regime." Similarly in
Syria, the government forcibly sent Al-Jazeera reporter Dorothy
Parvaz to Iran after she tried to enter the country, but claimed for
days that she was in custody. As if a reminder that journalists are
routinely exploited in political maneuvers was necessary, Parvaz was
released and sent to Qatar, presumably after the tiny Gulf emirate
responded favorably to a political overture by Tehran "seeking
closer ties with the Doha government," as the New
York Times put
Tripoli's treatment of journalists has been archetypical of a
regime all too willing to engage in outright criminal behavior
vis-à-vis journalists, it is hardly the only government in the
region which will deploy violence and intimidation against media.
Indeed, Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh claimed that the
country's revolution was the product of an Al-Jazeera conspiracy to
topple the government in Sana'a, a notion as preposterous as
Libya's assertion that journalists are not targeted. Syria's
contention that "a lot of exaggeration and many unspecified things
were said by news media" and that "Syrian state television tells
the truth; no one else," as expounded by senior presidential
advisor Buthaina Shaaban in a March press conference hardly warrant
serious consideration. Equally groundless assertions -- perhaps most
notably that demonstrators and any journalist who questions the
government-sanctioned narrative are infiltrators trained and
bankrolled by the U.S., Israel, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, and/or other
sinister shadowy forces -- have been made, to little effect, by Egypt,
Bahrain, Syria, and others at various points since January.
13 journalists killed in Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, and
Libya since the beginning of the year, there is no doubt that
reporters in this part of the world, when not deemed objects to be
used in political posturing and negotiations, are seen as a nuisance
to be eliminated.
Abdel Dayem is program coordinator for the Middle East & North
Africa at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Follow him on twitter @xmarksthespot77.