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Libya’s information walls come tumbling down

Libya’s information walls come tumbling down

In case there were any remaining question that Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, the scion of Libya’s fast-fading leader, is not exactly the brightest star in the galaxy, he dispelled those doubts today by appearing on the Al-Arabiya satellite channel to declare that "everything is normal" in Tripoli even as news outlets reported on growing signs that the Qaddafi family is losing its grip on Libya.

Earlier this week, Seif had invited foreign journalists to the Libyan capital so they could see for themselves just how wonderfully the Qaddafis were handling what he downplayed as the work of foreign-backed, pill-popping Al Qaeda terrorists bent on Libya’s destruction.

But correspondents for both Al Arabiya and the New  York Times, two news outlets that took up his invitation, managed to break away for their minders and report that all was not, in fact, under control.

The Times‘ David Kirkpatrick "discovered blocks of the city in open revolt" and spoke with eyewitnesses who told of "snipers and antiaircraft guns firing at unarmed civilians, and security forces were removing the dead and wounded from streets and hospitals, apparently in an effort to hide the mounting toll." Al Arabiya reported that Qaddafi’s security forces appeared to be abandoning Tripoli’s streets to the rebels. And the Associated Press relayed word that the Libyan regime "passed out guns to civilian supporters, set up checkpoints Saturday and sent armed patrols roving the terrorized capital."

Recent reports from eastern Libya, where Western news organizations have had correspondents for days now, make it clear that the Qaddafis have lost control of everywhere east of Ajbadiya, some 850 kilometers from Tripoli, while the opposition has held onto Misurata, the country’s third-largest city, and is closing in on the capital from the west as well. The Qaddafis still have plenty of firepower in Sirt, their home base, and in Tripoli, but their room for maneuver is shrinking rapidly.

So, what was Seif thinking?

Perhaps he thought that the regime really could control the flow of information, present a cleaned-up Potemkin village inside the capital, and earn some goodwill from foreign news organizations by appearing to be cooperative. But nobody’s buying the spin, and newspapers and satellite channels have become extremely sophisticated in how they leverage citizen networks in difficult reporting environments. Libyans inside the country are still, miraculously, risking their lives to take gritty cell-phone videos and upload them to Facebook or other social networking sites, where Libyan exiles pick them up, translate and provide context, and pass them along to a broader audience. Activists and journalists have been using tools like Skype to communicate directly with sources in and around Tripoli, and then spreading the news quickly on Twitter.

So, even if Kirkpatrick were stuck being driven around by government minders who only showed him what they wanted him to see, his colleagues in Benghazi and Cairo would still be able to get the real story from brave Libyan eyewitnesses who want the world to hear their story.

Unfortunately for Seif, Kirkpatrick managed to go a step beyond that and even managed to speak with some anti-Qaddafi folks in person:

[A]t another stop, in the neighborhood of Tajoura, journalists stumbled almost accidentally into a block cordoned off by makeshift barriers where dozens of residents were eager to talk about a week of what they said were peaceful protests crushed by Colonel Qaddafi’s security forces with overwhelming, deadly and random force.

A middle-age business owner, who identified himself only as Turkey, said that the demonstrations there had begun last Sunday, when thousands of protesters inspired by the uprising in the east had marched toward the capital’s central Green Square. He said the police had dispersed the crowd with tear gas and then bullets, killing a man named Issa Hatey. […]

Asked why he and his neighbors were rising up now, after living under Colonel Qaddafi for 42 years, Mr. Turkey, 46, shrugged. “No one can tell the time,” he said. After forty years of pressure, “you explode.” Two funerals were taking place nearby for those who died on Friday, and he said they expected another big protest on Sunday. 

It seems hard to imagine the regime can hold out much longer, given how quickly the information walls are coming down, but let’s not forget that the Qaddafis have said repeatedly and emphatically that they will fight to the death. Their loyalists have every reason to believe that the rebels — who say they are preparing to march on Tripoli and liberate the city even if it takes "pilots who are ready to crash their planes in a suicidal way" — will exact furious retribution after 42 years of tyranny. Expect them to go down swinging.