New York Times Points Out “Racist Overtones” in Libyan Rebel Disinformation It Helped Spread

Claims that the Libyan government was employing African mercenaries against the rebels were given credence in some left-wing media as well, even after information contradicting the claims began to surface: e.g., “. . .  [I]t must be pointed out that the Qaddafi regime helped create the conflict [“violence against Black Africans by Libya’s rebel forces”] by consciously drawing on Black Africans to serve as a mercenary force against the resistance” (“The U.S. Is No Friend to Libya’s Uprising,” Socialist Worker, 9 March 2011); “In order to crush the current opposition, Qaddafi is again relying on private mercenaries.  There are rumors that these mercenaries have come from as far away as Serbia, but most media accounts detail Qaddafi’s use of African mercenaries” (Rayyan Ghuma, “The Facts about Racism in Libya,” Socialist Worker, 14 March 2011).  The issue of war propaganda based on racist rumors spread by corporate media remains important, especially as the Libyan rebels are now attempting to take over Fezzan.  We hope to see a change in this regard in left-wing as well as corporate media. — Ed.

Today’s New York Times has a story by David Kirkpatrick and Rod Norland running down the exaggerations and misinformation that have been spread throughout the Libya War.  There’s been “spin from all sides,” they report.  Gadhafi’s exaggerations are well known, but this passage is rather striking:

Still, the rebels have offered their own far-fetched claims, like mass rapes by loyalist troops issued tablets of Viagra.  Although the rebels have not offered credible proof, that claim is nonetheless the basis of an investigation by the International Criminal Court.

And there is the mantra, with racist overtones, that the Gadhafi government is using African mercenaries, which rebels repeat as fact over and over.  There have been no confirmed cases of that; supposedly there are many African prisoners of war being held in Benghazi, but conveniently journalists are not allowed to see them.  There are, however, African guest workers, poorly paid migrant labor, many of whom, unarmed, have been labeled mercenaries.

So stories about African mercenaries are a racist mantra?  If that’s the case, then point a finger at media outlets like the New York Times.  While the warnings about mass rapes and mercenaries fueled the supporters of the NATO bombing, few reporters have detailed — mostly notably Patrick Cockburn in the Independent — that there was never solid evidence to support them.  They were nonetheless a regular part of the media coverage of the war, as I pointed out in a recent piece in Extra!:

A February 24 Washington Post editorial thundered, “Mr. Gadhafi has unleashed an orgy of bloodshed in the capital, Tripoli, using foreign mercenaries and aircraft to attack his own people.”  The day before, the New York Times editorial page (2/23/11) announced that in Tripoli “pro-government forces, relying heavily on mercenaries, were massacring demonstrators.”  The Times added that “there were reports of warplanes and helicopters being used to attack civilians” — though the paper did note that “authoritative information was difficult to come by.”

“Gadhafi’s brutal side has emerged once again,” reported ABC’s Martha Raddatz (World News, 2/22/11).  “This time, flying in cargo planes full of African mercenaries, who don’t even speak the language, to do his dirty work.  Trained killers gunning down residents and protesters in cold blood.”

And those “racist overtones” were fairly common in the pages of the New York Times.  From February 22:

By Monday night, witnesses said, the streets of Tripoli were thick with special forces loyal to Colonel Gadhafi as well as mercenaries.  Roving the streets in trucks, they shot freely as planes dropped what witnesses described as ”small bombs” and helicopters fired on protesters. . . .

Two residents said planes had been landing for 10 days ferrying mercenaries from African countries to an air base in Tripoli.  The mercenaries had done much of the shooting, which began Sunday night, they said.  Some forces were using particularly lethal, hollow-point bullets, they said.

February 23:

Witnesses said groups of heavily armed militiamen and mercenaries from other African countries cruised the streets in pickup trucks, spraying crowds with machine-gun fire.

February 24:

Distrustful of even his own generals, Colonel Gadhafi has for years quietly built up this ruthless and loyal force.  It is made up of special brigades headed by his sons, segments of the military loyal to his native tribe and its allies, and legions of African mercenaries he has helped train and equip.  Many are believed to have fought elsewhere, in places like Sudan, but he has now called them back.

It’s worth noting that David Kirkpatrick, co-author of today’s piece, also co-authored all of the articles excerpted above.

One has to wonder if the Times is changing the story now because they believe the war is over.  What better time to start exercising skepticism than now?

Peter Hart is the activism director at FAIR.  He writes for FAIR’s magazine Extra!, and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR’s syndicated radio show CounterSpin.  This article was first published in FAIR’s blog on 24 August 2011 under a Creative Commons license.  Cf. Yoshie Furuhashi, “Black Africans Live in Fear in ‘Free Libya'” (MRZine, 2 March 2011); Maximilian Forte, “The War in Libya: Race, ‘Humanitarianism,’ and the Media” (MRZine, 20 April 2011).

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