Reporter’s Notebook : In Tripoli, Truth Is What They Say It Is
Maj. Abdel-Salam Jalloud, Libya’s No. 2 official, told reporters here: “The truth--find the truth and tell it. We will help you to do that.” Indeed, Western journalists in Libya these past few weeks have been constantly admonished by Libyan officials to tell only the truth.
However, reporters who looked for the truth where officials did not think they ought to find it ran into immediate difficulties.
The truth, it seemed, was to be found only at official press conferences, at staged political rallies and at the sites of heavy damage to several homes that were hit by raiding U.S. warplanes, causing civilian casualties.
The truth was not to be found, it seemed, at Western embassies, where reporters were either barred from entering or questioned upon leaving by plainclothes security police who took down the reporters’ names and hotel room numbers and in some instances demanded to know whom they saw and what they discussed.
Diplomats who tried to return phone calls found that they could not get through to the hotel where the reporters were staying. Hotel cab drivers were under instructions not to take reporters to unapproved destinations, including embassies; and in at least one instance, a reporter was barred from getting into the diplomatic car sent by an ambassador to receive her. Several diplomats also said they were told in no uncertain terms not to speak to journalists.
Reporters who wrote stories that displeased the officials soon discovered that Libya could be a frustrating, even frightening, place to work.
One British correspondent was pressured into reading a statement before Libyan TV cameras denouncing “false reporting” because of a story he had written about a shooting incident witnessed by a number of journalists.
Others found that they could not place phone calls or receive them from their offices to dictate stories.
This correspondent’s office, after trying in vain to call him for several days, got through to the hotel only to be told by the operator that “we cannot put you through to that room.”
Libyan officials denied that any harrassment or censorship was involved. “We only want that you should write the truth,” one official explained.
Libya had been under a military alert for several days, but the U.S. air raid, when it came shortly after 2 a.m. last Tuesday, appeared to take everyone by surprise. Tripoli had not been blacked out, and the warplanes were only seconds from the capital when air defense units swung into action with heavy anti-aircraft fire.
One reporter was drowsily dictating a story to his newspaper about Libya’s reaction to a meeting of European Communities foreign ministers when suddenly the very air seemed rent by the scream of jet engines, the white flashes of explosions and the red ribbons of tracer bullets slicing through the night sky. The reporter cursed to himself and began composing a new top paragraph to his story.
Moments later, the electricity was cut and reporters stumbled out of their beds, threw on their clothes and ran downstairs to the hotel lobby to try to find out more about what was going on.
At first, Libyan officials themselves didn’t seem to know. “It’s nothing,” said one official who barred reporters from leaving the hotel. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s just a test.”