Veteran war correspondent Amedeo Ricucci talks to TGD about covering the revolts in Libya and Tunisia. He discusses the alarming levels of propaganda and disinformation coming from all sides as well as the demands for sensational "live war" TV in an era of "infobesité".
Amedeo Ricucci is a prize-winning journalist who has worked with the Italian public television RAI since 1993. Over the last 20 years he has covered wars in Algeria, Somalia, Bosnia, Ruanda, Liberia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and Palestine. He is also auther of “La guerra in diretta – Iraq, Palestina, Afghanistan, Kosovo. Il volto nascosto dell’informazione televisiva” as well as numerous documentaries (in Italian) including most recently “War, Lies and Television” (2010) and “Postcards from Iraq”(2010).
Where are you now? In North Africa?
Yes, I have been in Tunisia for the last month working on a piece about the Tunisian revolution, and the upcoming elections on the 23rd October for the Constituent Assembly. This is a vital vote as it will decide the constitutional framework of the new republic.
What is the atmosphere like in Tunisia?
The situation is interesting and delicate, Tunisia was the first of the Arab countries to rebel. The Arab Spring began here, and they were the first to get rid of their dictator, Ben Ali, on 14 January of this year, just three weeks after the revolution began. The Libyan revolt has been going on for 5 months, but what is happening here in Tunisia is equally interesting (and should be followed) but the country has fallen off the media radar to some extent. The situation here is complicated: the Islamic parties seem to be organising themselves very well, and it looks like they will win the elections on the 23rd October. There have been clashes between the non-religious progressive front and the Islamic parties, with violent street fighting.
How many political parties intend to take part?
There are now more than 100 officially registered parties. There has been an explosion of democracy which has been encouraged by the liberalization of the press in Tunisia. The place is in ferment but it is clear that the people have chosen pluralism as their democratic solution. You do have to remember though that one of the important issues of this campaign is the financing that the parties are receiving. The Islamic parties have been accused of receiving significant financing from Qatar and the Gulf states. This has led the government to pass new legislation that outlaws financing from abroad to ensure a level playing field.
The situation is quite tense by the sounds of it.
Yes, there are demonstrations on the streets every day, particularly young people who were really the driving force of this revolution. It was the young people in Tunisia who were the first to overcome their own sense of fear and challenge their dictator. These young people are still coming on to the streets and some demonstrators lost their lives only a few weeks ago. People are still saying that the blood of their martyrs, who were killed in the revolution, has not been honoured yet as exponents of the Ben Ali regime are still in government.
Have you been in Libya recently?
Yes I was there in May and June. The Libyan rebellion was totally different. It is almost impossible to compare it with the Tunisian or even with the Egyptian revolution. The social structure in Libya is very different, with the clans having a much more significant role: in reality there is no civil society in Libya as Geddafi never left it any room to develop. In fact in Libya it was less of a popular uprising and more of a tribal revolt.
I wanted to ask you specifically about reporting on the Libyan uprising. It appears that the reporting of unverified facts and outright propaganda has reached almost absurd levels. Do you find that to be true?
Yes, but this relates specifically to the early period of the revolt. In the first few weeks there was absolutely no international media presence in Libya, so the information was actually coming from opposition groups in London and Geneva. They were the ones who put a massive propaganda campaign in motion which the mainstream media fell for completely, presuming that the same thing was happening in Libya as had happened in Egypt and Tunisia. In reality the news of the national uprising was untrue as the revolt was limited to the Cyrenaica region, but the way that the media works now there was simply no time to sit down and check the facts. This is what we call the “tyranny of real time”, and the social networks have also become a part of this mechanism speeding everything up. The social networks have become a useful new tool, but only if you get the chance to verify the truth of the news you are finding on-line. For example when the earthquake in Haiti struck, there were none of the major networks present, Twitter covered the first 72 hours (the first tweet just 7 minutes after the quake) until the networks arrived. With an earthquake you are talking about “neutral” news, the worst you can do is get the figures wrong for the dead and the injured, but with a war that has global resonance you immediately have to start dealing with the propaganda.
What is the difference between the Libyan uprising and other wars you have covered over the last 20 years?
From the point of view of the relationship between the war, propaganda and reported information, the Libyan war is similar to others. There are similarities with the war in Kosovo in 1999 which was a war started by NATO based on false information. In Kosovo there was a famous “massacre”, in Račak. This was one of the triggers for unleashing the NATO action which was ostensibly “humanitarian” in nature, so as to avoid genocide being perpetrated. That was an invented massacre, just in the same way as the Libyan story of the mass graves of the victims of Gaddafi’s supposed bombing of suburbs of Tripoli, was invented. This was back in February just as the rebellion was starting and NATO decided to intervene. We all know about the Iraq War of 2003 being undertaken based on false information relating to the WMD that were never found. Propaganda is always a determining factor in war. Nothing has changed on that front.
The false mass grave photograph that did the rounds of the international media
Has the job of the war correspondent changed much over the years?
Yes, twenty years ago, the propaganda of governments and armies was disseminated via press releases but nowadays they have many more instruments at their disposal. Even Facebook pages play their part, behind which anybody could be lurking. Twitter too, which is even more anonymous. The Web as a tool can be useful but you have to be careful, you can find the excellent work of NGOs or non-profit organisations but you can also find governments, armies, basically anybody. We live in an era of infobésité as the French call it.
This makes life difficult for journalists, clearly.
Yes, very difficult. It becomes a problem of differentiating between genuine facts, rumours and disinformation. I see my job as going to a place, looking and reporting. I only report what I see and I only report what I am sure about. Anything I have not witnessed myself I check two or three times, as all good journalists are taught to do. If you look back at 1991 we saw the new phenomenon of “live” war brought to us by CNN. But “live war “ back in 1991 required a production cycle that you could measure in hours, as you needed to get bulky machinery in place to set up the feed, so it was almost “live”. Today reporting really is absolutely “live”, because the production cycle can be calculated in minutes, even seconds. It took seven seconds for the first “tweet” to go on line about the earthquake in Haiti. This makes the job of the journalist much more complicated. You have to really hurry to get to the site of the action and we are now seeing a lot of competition from a variety of sources. The journalist offers “added value” because of his or her experience and professional skill and knowledge about the country or area in question. But we have reached the limit, we cannot work any faster, we have hit the time barrier. The news is instantaneous, but this immediacy negatively affects our ability to understand and report on events.
Has the profession got worse?
There are two negative trends in the profession that have been developing over recent years. The first trend is that information and news has to be made as sensational and emotional as possible. I work in television so us war correspondents are now asked to do the “stand up” in front of groups of rebels who are shooting away at each other. This gives the idea of an exciting war but it is also fantastically idiotic. It only serves the purpose of proving that you are doing your job in the middle of a war. If you work for a public television service like the BBC or the Italian RAI as I do, your job should be to make the viewer understand what is going on. As for the images, it now tends to be people with mobile phones or local citizen journalists who get their first. By the time the journalists get there they should be able to add something to the situation. But unfortunately we are moving in the wrong direction towards sensational news.
And the second trend?
Multi-media. Journalists, even if they work for a newspaper, now have to do radio link ups, take photographs and take film footage with mini video cameras. Coverage is now multi–media. It leaves you little time to actually do the important part of your job which is going around trying to find out what is actually going on. You are too busy creating content.
Are journalists picking up on rumours too quickly. Are the demands on reporters to produce a dramatic story unreasonable?
Yes, partly, but the real problem is if you are holed up in a hotel like the journalists in Tripoli recently. At the Rixos hotel you are under the supervision of the authorities and you cannot gather information. You cannot do your job. Those journalists were in town but they were not in the middle of the action. As Hemingway said, “there is a time for writing and there is a time for action”, you have to do either one or the other.
It sounds like hard news and “commentary and insight” are diverging?
I am lucky as I work for a television programme that takes an in-depth look at events, but unfortunately for most of my colleagues, they no longer have the luxury of taking an analytical approach as the global TV formats are mainly that of the talk show or shows where they need short clips or footage of scenes “live from the front”. There is a new fashion for the sort of “he said” and ”she said” journalism. It is no longer a journalism based on facts. What matters are the opinions, but above all the opinions of politicians and experts. This is a grim period for journalists. The shows have become platforms for politicians, certainly in Italy, but it is much the same in the UK and the USA.
The story of African mercenaries fighting for Gaddafi, was that totally false?
Yes and no. The difficulty is that in Libya there are tribes that have completely black skin. Some of the tribes in the south like the Tuaregs and the Toubou are as black as anyone in Chad, so it is difficult to make an accurate assessment. Some instances of African mercenaries have been verified, a few, but certainly nothing like in the numbers touted by the rebels, who were saying that there were thousands of these mercenaries. It is true that Gaddafi has always had good relations with Chad and other African countries. But the truth is there have been instances of Serbian mercenaries too in the Libyan war. This is nothing new, there are mercenaries in every war. But there is no evidence of the systematic use of large numbers of mercenaries.
There were some high profile stories such as the mass rape story that Hillary Clinton mentioned in a press conference which was later called into question by Amnesty International which said that they had not located any rape victims.
This story of the mass rapes and the even more ridiculous one of Viagra being handed out to soldiers to encourage them to rape are complete absurdities which remind me of the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 2001. Both Bush and Sarkozy showed a photograph of a young girl whose fingernails had been pulled out because she was wearing fingernail polish. This was given as a reason to invade Afghanistan so that such things could never happen again. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch stated that this was the only case of its kind that they had come across and that there was no evidence of this punishment being perpetrated by the Taliban. This is how politics works nowadays. You need to tell a sensational story to get public opinion on your side.
You mentioned that the Libyan war was not a popular uprising but a regional tribal revolt. Did the media get it wrong from the start?
It was the media themselves who created the political framework and foundation for this war by propagating the false information being disseminated by the rebels. The politicians took all this false news at face value. Sarkozy and Cameron were convinced that they should intervene in Libya as they were convinced that the Libyan people wanted to get rid of Gaddafi and they were convinced it would all take a couple of weeks. It has now been going on for five months and it is not over yet. The responsibility for this NATO intervention, which was badly thought out and badly executed, can be laid at the door of the media who put the fake photographs of the mass graves in Tripoli on their front pages. In reality the photo was just a photo of a cemetery for immigrants who had died in a shipping accident. This was a shocking mistake for all of the world’s major newspapers to put a fake photograph on their front page which demonised Gaddafi at a critical moment. Anybody could have seen that it was not a mass grave but neat rows of graves. A mass grave is just one big hole. These photographs had been posted on the Internet months before. This is pure disinformation but the newspapers ran with the photo as they need sensational news at all costs and quickly.
Is NATO becoming much more expert at managing the news?
To be honest, I think this is the last war that NATO will take part in as the conduct of the war has been dreadful. They have spent massive sums of money on military actions that were pointless. To get the job done, NATO even had to deploy military advisors and special forces to lead and advise the rebels, something which they have had to deny, as it was not part of their UN mandate – I am talking about British and French special forces like the SAS. A journalist has to be very careful about being fed propaganda as all armies do it, even the rebels, even NATO. This is nothing new but times have changed. NATO creates propaganda with the tools of the 21st century whereas during the Crimean War, things were obviously much slower. NATO uses the same tools that we journalists use. The important thing for a journalist is not to be infected by this propaganda, not to fall for it.
It looks very clear that NATO is trying to kill Gaddafi
Absolutely, which is illegal. Their UN mandate gives them the right to protect civilians but it is obvious to everyone that they want to kill him. Just look at how many air-strikes there have been on his bunker in Bab Al-Aziziyah. Officially they cannot admit to what they are doing, as the UN resolution 19-73 does not allow them to kill a head of state. But they do want to kill him as it is clear that he will fight until the end, and if he manages to escape from Libya it will be to regroup his forces and start again.