Arthur Chatora, Intern, African Conflict Prevention Programme, ISS Pretoria Office
The mainstream media’s conspicuous silence about the racially motivated human rights abuses perpetrated against black Libyans and immigrants, by the NATO-backed Transitional National Council (TNC) forces in Libya, is disturbing. Similarly, the high civilian casualties of the current intense fighting in the city of Sirte seems, to a large extent, to be underplayed. Yet organisations such as Human Rights Watch have acknowledged that civilian abuses have continued and called on forces on both sides that are fighting in Sirte to minimize harm to civilians and treat all prisoners humanely.
This biased media coverage raises questions about the credibility of media organisations and their agenda. Is it because the presence of widespread evidence of racially motivated human rights abuses committed by the TNC forces raises moral and ethical questions that challenge the validity of the notion of a ‘humanitarian war’? The responsibility assumed by NATO and the TNC forces to protect civilian lives from abuse by Gaddafi forces is also questionable, as it appears this mandate does not seem to extend to the protection of black Libyans and African immigrants.
It seems clear that although the United Nations (UN) has acknowledged that war crimes have been committed on both sides, the mainstream media has been preoccupied with covering human rights violations allegedly committed by Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s forces while ignoring those committed by the NATO-backed forces. This is a dissimulation strategy, which demonstrates that the Libyan conflict is being waged on different fronts. A snap content and discourse analysis shows that various media reveal an inherent ideological bias in coverage of the war.
From the inception of the Libyan conflict, a range of organisations within different segments of the media, have generally assumed a narrative that is pro-rebels and anti-Gaddafi in their coverage of the war. The media’s ideological position is the one informed by the dichotomy of ‘us’ (NATO and TNC forces) and ‘them’ (Gaddafi forces), emanating from the fundamental humanitarian reasons and justifications given by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to implement the UN Security Council Resolution 1973, adopted to protect civilians from violence and abuses by the Gaddafi regime.
From the outset of the armed conflict, rebel groups earned a reputation as ‘freedom fighters’ or ‘liberators’ working with NATO on a humanitarian mission to protect civilians from violence and abuses. Consequently, some media organisations assumed this ideological position in their coverage of the war, framing the rebels as ‘pro-democracy liberators’ while constructing Gaddafi’s forces as ‘human rights violators’. Leading media institutions have been producing and articulating these discourses that are in line with representing a binary narrative that supports the position that NATO and the Libyan TNC forces have a humanitarian responsibility to protect civilians’ lives while Gaddafi forces have been primarily constructed as human rights violators. Sections of the media have continued to dissimulate narratives of racial human abuses committed by rebel forces because such representations are not congruent with or contradict a pre-defined ideological position that constructs rebel forces and their allies as human rights custodians. Thus, such human rights violations and civilian abuses are not afforded media prominence and attention. The dissimulation of unfavourable narratives relates to the concept of symbolic annihilation whereby the media denies a marginalised or minority social group(s) a voice through under-representation or non-coverage in the media.
There have been several cases and evidence of racial violence against black Libyans and African immigrants that have been reported by humanitarian organisations but these cases have rarely been covered by mainstream media organisations. For example, Amnesty International recently released a detailed 107-page report entitled The Battle for Libya: Killings, Disappearances and Torture whose contents show evidence of racial abuses. The report focuses on among other issues, the human rights abuses being committed against black Africans, by both the Gaddafi and the TNC forces.
Similarly, in August 2011 the UN High Commissioner for Refugees issued a strong call for sub-Saharan Africans to be protected in Libya after reports emerged from Tripoli of people being targeted because of their race. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, urged restraint from rebel forces and Libyan civilians adding that, Africans especially, have been particularly vulnerable to hostility or acts of vengeance. The UN has documented several cases of rebels torturing migrant workers in rebel-held areas but these cases have rarely found coverage in mainstream media.
More evidence of human rights violations has continued to emerge following the recent publication of a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on the arbitrary detention of black-skinned people in Tripoli. In a statement Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch categorically and unequivocally stated that, ‘The NTC should stop arresting African migrants and black Libyans unless it has concrete evidence of criminal activity. It should also take immediate steps to protect them from violence and abuse.’ Similarly, Fred Abrahams, the special advisor at Human Rights Watch recently called on military leaders in Sirte from both sides to make sure that their forces protect civilians or at least allow them to flee the combat zone.
It in interesting to note that despite widespread evidence of such racial abuses perpetrated by the TNC forces, it appears mainstream media organisations have not been willing to represent a narrative that does not conform to its set ideological position and agenda. What has become evident where the reports of racial abuses have reached mainstream media is the framing of a narrative that portrays the victims as ‘African mercenaries,’ despite the availability of adequate evidence to prove that many of the victims were not mercenaries. Amnesty International reports that, ‘the allegations about the use of mercenaries proved to be largely unfounded’ but this has remained an unknown fact to the public. This revelation demonstrates the media’s complicity in the human rights violations. Therefore, mainstream media organisations have concealed gross abuses that could have been exposed and stopped by not representing and speaking against such human rights violations.
The lack of adequate exposure and coverage of the rebels’ racial violations by mainstream media corroborate the assertion that the media is not serving the public but it is serving power and in the process it has abandoned professional media ethics and standards.