24 Apr 2011

Reporting Libya’s war from inside Gaddafi’s Rixos hotel

Foreign Affairs Correspondent

Channel 4 News Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Miller reports on the challenges of broadcasting stories from the parts of Libya still under Gaddafi’s control.

For the past eight weeks, journalists reporting from the Libyan capital, Tripoli, have been faced severe restrictions imposed by the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.

Foreign news teams have been corralled into a Tripoli hotel and prevented from leaving unless accompanied by government minders – and then, only to approved locations.

From Mistrata to Eman al-Obedi, journalists in Tripoli have faced severe difficulties in reporting the story.

Our Foreign Affairs Correspondent, Jonathan Miller, has spent a total of four weeks now in Tripoli, and reports on the restrictions behind the news:

Channel 4 News Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Miller reports on the challenges of broadcasting stories from the parts of Libya still under Gaddafi's control.

For two months now, journalists from all over the world have been held under unofficial house arrest in Tripoli’s Rixos al-Nasr Hotel, unable to venture out to report independently.

Armed men and intelligence officials guard its gates round the clock. We can only leave with government minders, to see things the government wants us to see.

There’s been a war going on up the road for two months, civilians being killed in rebel-held Misrata.

For the past fortnight, the government has refused to take us there.

Instead, we’re fed a daily diet of government propaganda at press conferences in the Rixos hotel. Every night, we would ask again to go to Misrata, but it never happened.

News conferences are called at any time of day or night. We’re never told who’ll be speaking or on what. Some of the “journalists” in the conferences aren’t actually journalists at all.

The hotel lobby is the centre of our universe. On its walls, a rogue’s gallery of illustrious past guests and visitor – including Saif Gaddafi and Robert Mugabe.

The Rixos lobby correspondents huddle here to file copy, call contacts and write about a war we’re not allowed to witness.

But the regime has planted its people throughout the hotel.

‘Our job is to film things the government doesn’t want us to see, theirs is stop us.’

There are scores of government minders and their faces change every day. They hang out in the hotel drinking endless cups of coffee. Our job is to film things the government doesn’t want us to see, theirs is stop us.

Our roles are fundamentally juxtaposed.

Saif al-Gaddafi, son of the Brother Leader, repeatedly told journalists they can report freely, anywhere in Libya.

In an interview with us earlier in March he said:

“You are in Tripoli. You can go film anywhere, go and interview.”

We objected, saying that journalists are being arrested outside the hotel, returned to it and told not to go anywhere without a minder.

Said promised to check this, but we never heard back from him and the restrictions were tightened.

In a recent interview with Moussa Ibrahim al-Gaddafi, the government spokesman, we asked him what he was trying to hide?

Moussa argued that we did go out and drive around with Libyan minders, interpreters and drivers – but said he knew access was restricted and blamed the fighting for any problems:

“I admit that we are not giving you complete free access. We have problems with the media and as I said we were developing and changing and now this war comes in and stops and halts everything.”

Last month a real Libyan burst into our hotel. Her name was Eman al-Obeidi.

As minders and waiting staff tried to silence her, she shouted out to journalists that she’d been kidnapped and gang-raped by Gaddafi’s militiamen.

Waitresses tried to restrain her. It was like a bar room brawl, spilling out into the lobby as minders kicked and punched reporters and smashed cameras; one drew a gun.

We looked on, astonished and powerless, as Eman al-Obeidi was manhandled into a car, and driven off.

I’ve repeatedly tried to get access to her, to no avail and the government just dismisses her as a prostitute.

A month on, the kitchen staff are still here, as is the minder who drew the gun.: Jalal al-Traike, who even other minders call him “Scarface”.

In the dining room brawl, he punched me in the face. We were promised he’d be fired. But he wasn’t.

Moussa Ibrahim al-Gaddafi said:

“We fired three of the security. He [Jalal] was one of them. These people are not under my command but I talked to the proper authorities. They did punish them, they did fire them.”

But Jalal al-Traike is back. We met him when we returned to Libya this week.

We’d asked to the old city, in the hope of having real conversations with real people. But we’ve got Jalal and four other minders to watch us.

I can’t move without him trailing me, and people are terrified of speaking to us as a result.

We go into a shop and the minders come in after us and it’s almost impossible to speak to them.

The State of play in Gaddafi's Libya
Jonathan Miller blogs on how he and his team broke out of the Rixos hotel to interview a rebel fighter in the heart of Gaddafi's capital city, Tripoli:

"Getting past the phalanx of armed guards at the gates of the Rixos sans government minder is hard, but we’d obtained a contact who claimed to be a rebel fighter in the heart of the capital and we were determined to meet him. If he was prepared to take the risk, so were we..."

Read more here: The State of play in Gaddafi's Libya

Some journalists are philosophical about the restrictions. But the frustrations are huge.

Stuart Ramsay, Chief Correspondent for Sky News said:

“The news conferences are possibly the most absurd series of nonsense and lies that I have ever had the misfortune of spending any time in. The delivery of facts is absolutely ridiculous.”

Journalists leaving the hotel, sometimes after long stints of reporting, can’t wait to escape.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro correspondent for National Public Radio said:

“I’ve been here for almost a month and leaving the Rixos Hotel is like leaving prison.”

Still refusing to take us to Misrata or to meet any civilian casualties, our minders herd us by bus to a place they say was bombed by NATO.

We were driven an hour and a half south of Tripoli to a hole in the ground. I wasn’t entirely clear why we were there.

No one had been killed. No one injured. There was no damage. Just an unexplained crater.

Last week, we staged a breakout, and escaped, unnoticed into Tripoli. We’d made contact with a rebel fighter who was willing to risk meeting us.

He claimed that well-armed rebel cells were operating in the capital. One day we’ll get Gaddafi, he told me. The revolt here will be bloody, he said, but Libyans have tasted blood already and it’s too late to go back. Rebel units, he told me, were attacking army checkpoints every night.

It made sense of the sporadic crackle of gunfire we hear every night in the Rixos Hotel.

Had we just been fed Libyan rebel propaganda?

Maybe.

But after our incarceration in Tripoli’s Ministry of Truth, it felt like a breath of fresh air.