Published April 03, 2011
TRIPOLI, Libya – At the Rixos Hotel, Moammar Gadhafi's gilded cage for foreign journalists, fistfights break out. Paranoia is high. And the Libyan government is on unblinking watch for any deviation in the official script.
Waitresses who serve coffee with smiles on their faces act more like trained intelligence agents hours later, when a woman bursts in claiming that militiamen had raped her. They expertly wrestle her to the ground.
Government minders feed reporters the narrative of a nation united behind its longtime leader, then arrest or even expel those who sneak away to find out for themselves. Government-led trips dubbed "magical mystery tours" by the press corps sometimes turn perilous.
And then there's the noise, the pro-Gadhafi music blaring on the bus — with state journalists singing along and pumping their fists in time — and even in journalists' rooms as housekeepers clean them.
The psychological stress is much different from that faced by reporters on the front line in eastern Libya, where bullets, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades are the threats.
The Rixos, by contrast, is a five-star hotel, though it has rapidly declined as journalists and minders have taken over the building and some staff have fled. Still, for Western journalists accustomed to press freedoms, working in Tripoli under Gadhafi's rules has in some ways been tougher than reporting from a battlefield.
One reporter muses about whether his dinner is being drugged. An Italian journalist punched a government minder and had to be pulled off the man by a couple of British reporters.
A French journalist threw his coffee at his cameraman during an argument, but it landed on the back of a government spokesman, who had to change his clothes. Another punching fight ensued.
"It has become a competition to see who gets kicked out first," one American journalist has a habit of saying.
War in any form has many odd and unsettling moments, of course. But from the vantage point of a government-controlled hotel in a locked-down city, the unusual interludes offer a glimpse into how the Libyan government wants the world to see it — and how it sees itself.
Some journalists already have been deported — most of them Arabic speakers. They are more tightly controlled than the rest of the corps because they understand the culture better, and have many times caught discrepancies in the government-paid translators who try to control the interviews and information.
When Iman al-Obeidi barged into the hotel to tell her story of being gang-raped, it was the Arab journalists who were harassed the most for trying to interview her. Government minders called them traitors of their own culture and said they should understand why the other Libyans were unhappy with her dramatic entrance.
Al-Obeidi now faces criminal charges.
Reporters are lectured at press conferences, accused of not doing their job, of not "asking the hard questions" or "asking the wrong questions."
When an Associated Press reporter was trying to decipher the exact story of how a missile allegedly hit a farm in Tripoli, the minders called her unprofessional and said she was trying to skew the story.
Journalists have to put up with the government control if they want to report from Tripoli. Even though they see little Gadhafi does not want them to see, they have a unique window on the conflict — quite possibly the most important window if his regime falls.
For now, however, the experience can be disorienting and excruciating.
"Good moooorning all jooournalists!" Moussa Ibrahim's call booms over the hotel's public address system every day, the hint of a British accent in his perfect English betrays the 15 years he lived in the United Kingdom.
The hotel itself has lost some of its sheen. Hotel management has canceled room service and laundry service, and has taken all the pictures and decorations off the walls. Chairs and tables have been removed from a pretty terrace where some journalists used to drink coffee and work — it's now a desolate hall people use as a smoking room.
Each day sees a "magical mystery tour" — a government-run bus trip to see a location around Tripoli. It usually turns out to be nothing like what the minders described.
At their worst, the trips leave the press corps in fear of their lives. There was the night the bus ran out of gas outside the Gadhafi stronghold of Sirte, almost stranding journalists in the desert as rocket fire pounded nearby.
On another trip, unhappy locals opened gunfire at the bus and journalists had to run for cover.
The trips usually end with at least one very loud staged rally: Gadhafi supporters waving green flags and dancing around for the benefit of the television cameras. The print reporters will try to sidle to the sidelines to talk to anyone who seems like they're not part of the rally, only to be ushered back to the main crowd by the government minders.
Reporters are so tired of the staged rallies they now stand listless during the events, smoking cigarettes and wincing at the loud pro-Gadhafi shouting.
The hotel lobby has become a meeting point to share information, rumors and gossip for the reporters.
Sometimes a couple will attempt to sneak out of the hotel, minderless, but it has become increasingly difficult to do this with taxi drivers getting in trouble for driving foreigners around town.
If on the off chance, journalists are able to slip away and get one or two precious quotes of dissent in the capital, they walk around with the sense of pride that comes with beating the system, and brag to their colleagues and competitors about their work.
Usually the sneaking trips have ended badly — some reporters were arrested, cuffed, detained for a day, disappeared for a few hours, or kept in a parking lot to get berated by Gadhafi militiamen.
Sometimes just being arrested feels like work has been done that day.