How to Write a (Sloppy, Inaccurate) News Article on Libya

Whenever news topics become scarce, and continuously reporting on ISIS or Ebola starts to feel monotonous, MENA journalists often turn to their in-case-of-slow-news-day topic; Libya. Specifically, how Libya has become a failure, a monster, a pale shadow of the wonderful thriving nation it was once. [ironic citation needed]

I’ve read a lot of inaccurate, irresponsible, and at times, just plain yellow journalistic articles this past month. The structure is always the same; Heftar vs. Fajr Libya, Liberals vs. Islamists, an apocalyptic-style narrative fraught with gun-toting fighters and a few quotes from arbitrary citizens. Writing about Libya’s current conflict is a piece of cake, really. Factually correct? Meh, who cares, it’s not like they understand English anyways.

Possibly the most damning of these was an interview done by world-famous journalist Christiane Amanpour about Abdul-Hakim Belhadj. “He is the man who many say is the key to making peace in Libya,” she garbled.

Who many say“? I live in Libya and I’ve never heard anyone claim that about him. In fact, he’s been keeping a very low profile during this conflict. And if by “making peace”, she means stopping the crooked militias he has on a leash from destroying the country, then yeah, I can see her point.

It’s exactly this kind of bizarre reporting that has made many Libyans lose faith in journalists. People like Abdulsalam Mismary, Salwa Bugaighis and Tawfik Bensaud could have been key figures in making peace in Libya. But while they were brutally murdered, the people actively funding militias while living outside the country are the ones getting interviewed. Of course, the activists get limelight after their horrific deaths, but only as narrative tools to further make money/publicity off of the chaos in Libya.

And try as they might to be objective, Libyans have already categorized these journalists as ‘reliable, trustworthy sources’ or ‘dirty, dirty liars’, depending on whatever bias they present. And oftentimes it’s not just subjective reporting but downright deception. Examples include the use of the term ‘Tobruk’s parliament’ in reference to the Libyan House of Representatives, which gives the impression that there is more than one official government body (news flash: there isn’t), or extreme variations in the numbers of those killed and injured in clashes.

And no matter how often these journalists reiterate the point that the conflict in Libya is “complex”, it doesn’t seem to prevent them from writing up an over-simplified analysis, presumably to dumb down the story enough for their Western audiences to grasp.

In order to understand to the conflict in Libya, you have to go back almost four years ago to the beginning of the revolution, when the first alliances were forged. And even then, you won’t be able to see the full picture if you don’t understand the nuanced world of Libya’s societal, tribal and regional history.

Angry ranting aside, I decided to try out my own writing skills in a ‘Libya Op-Ed’, in the tradition of these shoddy pieces (if only to console myself with venting).

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Revolution Journal | Oct 6 – It’s another bleak, dark day in Libya as clashes continue. Heftar’s forces fight in one part of the country, Fajr Libya’s forces in another part, while something’s going on in that Southern part with all the sand.

Our sources can confirm almost with certainty that weapons are being used in the fighting, as tweets of ‘BOOM’ are being posted on a social media platform known as Twitter. We have also been able to discern from this site that the fighting is concentrated mainly in the key cities of Libya, namely Benghazi and Tripoli.  

The fighting is clearly drawn along ideological lines. Heftar’s lack of a beard indicates his liberal leanings, while cries of Allahu Akbar from Fajr Libya’s forces betray their Islamists loyalties. The flame wars in the comment’s section of Libyan Facebook pages are a worrying indicator of the dangers of this crisis. 

I spoke to one of my Libyan businessman friends about the conflict. “The situation is very difficult,” he said to us through Skype, from his McMansion in Britain. “The thuwar, known for their level-headed thinking and careful war tactics, are doing their best for Libya, but no one seems to appreciate that. The obvious solution here is to give them more money.” 

Another Libyan city has begun to play a role in this crisis; Tobruk. According to its Wikipedia page, Tobruk is a port city in Eastern Libya. In recent months, an authority calling itself the ‘House of Representatives’ has appeared in this city, much to the puzzlement of Libya experts everywhere. 

“For God’s sake, we were elected!,” typed one representative of this supposed government, in response to a Facebook message. “We couldn’t convene in Benghazi because it’s not safe. Do you people not read the news?” 

After some in-depth Google researching, it appears that there have been a string of assassinations and violence in Benghazi, dating as far back as 2012. We reached out to one Twitter user from this besieged city.

“lol yeah, it totally sucks,” typed user @libyateenqueen2003, clearly distraught. “i haven’t been able to shop for 2 weeks now. ” 

The international community has been vocal in their condemnation of fighting in Libya. “We call on every armed person to put their weapons down now,” said one UN representative, for the 12th time this month. He later told Revolution Journal in a private interview, “There have been some successes in the Libyan conflict. For one thing, the oil production is increasing, which is fabulous news for everyone. Our biggest concern now is that the fighting will extend to the oil fields, which might prompt us to actually do something. We can’t stress enough that no measure is too drastic to protect our fragile economy. Oh, yeah, and the people too, of course.” 

As we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan (and virtually every other armed conflict in history), the presence of weapons and a lack of strong authority are usually not helpful when trying to rebuild a country. The meddling of other countries in Libyan affairs is also a contributing factor to the crumbling nation Libya has become. [No one from these other countries was available for comment]

Only time will tell what will happen to this oil rich country as extremism and instability take root [insert overused Iraq cliche here]. With every other horrible thing going on on the planet, we have to ask ourselves, does anyone even care about this forgettable African nation?” 

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[Just a gentle yet firm reminder that the above faux article is SATIRE, i.e. I’m making fun of other articles. It’s not meant to be taken seriously. Seriously.]

The Libyan Guide To Staying Optimistic During Your Country’s Apocalypse

Is your electricity and water being cut off periodically? Are you sick of hearing constant explosions and gunfire? Worried that a military coup might overthrow your weak government? Well, look no further than this post!

Now, Libya’s situation doesn’t exactly leave room for hope. You only need to read through the social media feeds of the increasingly cynical and pessimistic nation to get the impression that the country has become part Somalia, part Afghanistan. A Frankenstein’s monster of failed states, if you will.

But while truth is stranger than fiction, social media is often stranger than truth. Don’t forget that it’s easier to attract clicks and page views with an apocalyptic headline (that’s why you clicked this link, isn’t it?) than with a more grounded, fact-based headline.

Since it is the fated month of February, there have been articles galore detailing just how and why Libya has become such a loser of a country, three years after the controversial revolution.

“Leave the country! Get away before it’s too late!” they cry (errr, type). The current running joke is that the best part of Libya is the airport. (Captain Obvious says: so they can leave the country, duh).

But the question is: too late for what? And just how bad is it living in Libya?

In a caffeine-induced frenzy, I’ve decided to write down all the reasons that, despite the odds, I still have hope in this country. Without further ado:

1. “If there is hope, it lies with the youth”: Youth in general are an unpredictable lot, and when you add to that disillusionment with the country and marginalization from the government, you wind up with Libya’s main demographic.

This is the same group that worked tirelessly during the revolution and displayed an unpredictable set of talents. The same group that have unprecedented access to technology and telecommunications. With the right amount of inspiration and inclusion, there is more potential and possibility with Libya’s youth than there are with the zombies currently occupying the political scene.

And if they’re not given the opportunity? Sooner or later they will step up and take it themselves, it’s only a question of when.

2. The Apocalypse Is Not Really Happening: “How can you live in Benghazi?” I’ve been asked this quite a lot. What with the bombs and assassinations and general dread, living here must be mortifying, right?

I’m not saying the bad stuff is tolerable. It absolutely enrages me to hear of the poor security situation, and the deaths of fellow citizens. But my life is not fixated on news channels. I have school, work, friends, family and other activities in my life. There’s a popular saying in Benghazi, “you fight us with death, we fight you with life.” And life goes on in Benghazi. This has always been a historically unconquerable city. If we have to be the stage where the revolution and its repercussions play out, we will bear that burden.

3. National Unity: Like any large, dysfunctional family, Libyans are prone to argue with each other over trivial differences. Regional hostility, tribal disputes and random bickering is not new to us. But while we fight like children, you’d be hard pressed to find a more tight-knit community of people.

Recently Libya won the African Cup of Nations tournament, and it was in the wake of this victory that Libyans were completely united, celebrating together in complete harmony. This proves that, despite our little differences, we can stick together when we need to.

4. Increased Consciousness: What do we have now that we didn’t have three years ago? Well, three years of experience. If you compare the protests now, peaceful and organized, to the protests a year ago that ended in violence, you’ll notice a difference.

Libyans are more aware of what it means to be a developing democracy. It’s a continuous process that doesn’t end when the dictator is killed. We have to keep working at it, and improving ourselves, if we want to see change. Sure, it’s a sobering reality, but hard truths are tough to swallow.

There’s a diagram a teacher of mine once drew, showing the difference between what we think progress looks like and what it really looks like. “Actual achievement of goals is less like climbing stairs and more like climbing a mountain”

Untitled-1

I’ll keep updating this list with more points, but I think my caffeine buzz is fading. Can you add anything to this list??

The Drone Flew Over Benghazi That Night…

…over the heads of the annoyed but unwitting denizens of the city. It didn’t make a distinctive sound, more like a vibration. You could hear it in your pulse, long and low and continuous. Sometimes it dropped lower and you could swear the windows were rattling in their frames.”

“Why should the drone appear now, after months of absence? Could it have something to do with those rumors of captured Americans? And if the city is unsafe for foreigner, who’s even operating the damn thing?”

“As usual, the list of unanswered questions in Benghazi remains long and confusing. The citizens no longer care much, with their focus being on surviving a day-to-day existence. That’s not to say that living in the city is impossible, but the string of bombings and assassinations have left people rattled. We’re not used to this type of violence. Hell, there’s a good chance it’s not even Libyans perpetuating the violence. With a grudge from the Syrian regime over Libyan fighters in their country, to terrorist organizations eyeing the country’s aimless young men as fresh meat to recruit, the list of possible suspects almost matches the list of questions.”

“The drone watches all of this. Flying, observing, collecting information to be processed by minds and machines more sophisticated. Is the government even aware that there is a drone flying over the second largest city in the country it governs? I’m sure the list of things the government is oblivious to could fill several libraries. But I’m not sure if this is one of them. They’re definitely getting help from “friendly” nations. But assisting the current Libyan government is like giving a screwdriver to a fish; it possesses neither the appendages nor the necessary brain power to do anything useful with it.”

And so concludes the saga of Benghazi’s drone…for now. I actually wanted to write a rant on the abysmal state of journalism in the social media era (did I rant on this before?), but the drone was interrupting my thoughts. Also, I didn’t have a opening paragraph in mind. Two and two!

Screw journalists. Those soulless word zombies, ready to tear out the organs of a nation, ideology or a struggling city just for a story. Facts? Verified witness accounts? Pfff, just type out a few superlatives in the title, make vague allusions to some righteous cause that people want to defend (or tweet about to look righteous, same difference) and BAM! you have a moderately interesting story that’s bound to get a few likes/retweets/reddits (I don’t actually use reddit so I’m not very familiar with the terminology, but I assume it has the same general premise as other social media sites. Plus the users are called “redditors” so whatever, not like I’m far off the mark).

My rage is not new, but it is amplified. Following the chaotic events that have happened in Benghazi these past few months, every major and minor publication is rushing to write some article about the city, because, hey!, the US ambassador was killed here, remember? (Of course you remember, every right-wing loon has the name of the city hashtagged in the bio of their twitter account, as though every stone in the city is responsible for the death of a guy they had never even heard of prior).

But they can’t actually visit Benghazi. The city is a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and sundry other terrorist groups (according to that one post in a facebook group. A reliable facebook group, mind you).

So these journalists, in their rabid search for material to write about a country they probably couldn’t locate on a map, send out tweets and emails and requests to anyone who’s written the word “Libya” more than twice. “Hi there, would you be interested in answering a few questions for XYZ magazine about the situation in your city? Nevermind that you might be lying about your identity and current whereabouts! It’s not like it would happen on a social media site. What is this, MySpace in 2005? Guffaw! Also yeah ask your friends for quotes, too.”

Let me simplify the equation in case my midnight writing is hard to follow:

Journalist + Seeking Story – On The Ground Reporting = Bullshit

Don’t get me wrong. Even journalists who are on the ground can excrete bullshit reports. But the equation above is a surefire way to find articles with more semicolons than there are facts. I’m not going to link the recent wave of Libya-related articles because I don’t want to pollute my page with yellow journalism, but just type “Libya” or “Benghazi” in your search engine and you won’t be disappointed (in the results, I mean. You WILL be disappointed in the level of garbage being published. Unless you hate Libya, in which case piss off).

Now, I’ve been known to rage against globalization and the rise in stupidity being imported and exported. But I genuinely feel that, now that we’re all “connected” in the age of technology, there’s just been less effort to do things right. Back when the internet was used almost exclusively for porn, journalists weren’t distracted by arbitrary popularity indicators. You either sold papers or got viewership. But now you not only need to check how well your story is doing on various mediums, but see who else is talking about it, thanks to the rise in sites who’s sole aim is to regurgitate links from other websites. 

If the average human’s attention span can be held in a head-lock by the thrill of human attention being given on their social media pages, what makes journalists immune to this same pitfall? I would even venture to presume that the phenomenon is magnified for them, since they’re not just dealing with a handful of likes or reblogs, but dozens, hundreds, in some cases even thousands. The rush they get must be huge, not just for being acknowledged, but because they will see the attention as validation for their performance as a journalist. “Whoa, 3,000 likes and counting! Man, I’m an awesome online journo!”, they say, fist pumped in the air once before it returns to the crusty Cheetos bag in their dank living room.

And who is the victim here? The poor developing countries they’re writing about. If semi-credible press agencies publish/air these unconfirmed stories, some people will believe them. These people will tell others, citing the semi-credible source. It gets around, until parties interested in dealing with this country reconsider, which leads to the actual deterioration of the country. Not because it really was a safe haven for criminals/terrorists/West-hating crazies, but because that’s what people believed. The terrorists catch wind and think,”Yeah, they said there’s a whole bunch of us in that city, let’s go join them!” You see where I’m going with this?

Okay, so perhaps the situation I outlined is stretching the bounds of reality just a little. There must have been some event that had happened which led to the rumors circulating, and which caused these rumors to manifest as reported events. But I have heard stories that ended up being complete fabrications too many times for my paranoia meter to be working properly anymore, and propaganda wars have been in full swing in the MENA lately. I’m not going to be wearing a tinfoil hat anytime soon, but I will continue to be wary of journalists who are interested in Libya.