TRIPOLI, Libya— The loudspeakers in every journalist’s hotel room burst into life with a “ding-dong” presaging the announcement of a news conference, or perhaps a bus trip to the scene of an airstrike or a school where children erupt with chants of support for Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.
The summons come with little notice, so many reporters spend their time drinking coffee in the hotel’s cavernous, marbled lobby to avoid missing an event. Every now and then the unmistakable voice of Gaddafi unnervingly pierces the air, yelling that the rebels fighting in the east are rats and that he will hunt them down.
But it’s only the cellphone of a government minder — the rambling, ranting speech delivered by Gaddafi at the beginning of the uprising has become a popular ringtone among his supporters here.
And so the days pass in the Big Brother world of the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli, where foreign journalists are obliged by the government to stay in conditions that can best be described as luxury imprisonment. There are whirlpool bathtubs in every room, a sumptuous spa and guards armed with Kalashnikovs posted at the gate.
Their job, it is clear, is to keep journalists in, not intruders out.
In the initial stages of the conflict, when 130 members of the foreign press corps were first “invited” by the Gaddafi regime to Tripoli in a rare moment of openness, there was at least a degree of pretense that reporters were free to do their jobs.
Although those who strayed into sensitive areas or toward a battle zone would likely be detained, often for hours, trips into central Tripoli were tolerated. From there it was possible to slip into other neighborhoods, meet ordinary Libyans and take the pulse of the city.
But since an unexplained gun battle near the hotel in the early hours of Friday, all unaccompanied forays out have been banned. Even trips to the grocery store across the street, for chocolate bars or shampoo, now must be supervised by a Libyan “companion,” the government’s euphemistic term for the minders assigned to watch the journalists.
Government officials say the restrictions are for the journalists’ protection. “Weapons are everywhere because we are arming the people. They believe the international media is part of the conspiracy against us,” chief government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim explained at a recent briefing. “This is risky for you.”
Yet most Libyans encountered by chance on the streets are friendly and welcoming, and the only real sense of threat comes from within the confines of the government-sanctioned bubble. On two occasions, angry Gaddafi supporters have burst into the hotel to noisily denounce the Western journalists, chanting “correspondent, correspondent.” It was a sinister twist on “zenga zenga,” or “alley by alley,” the rallying cry taken from the Gaddafi speech in which he pledged to hunt down his opponents.
Every few days, reality-show-style, journalists awake to discover that their ranks have been depleted by a deportation. On Sunday, it was Damien McElroy of London’s Daily Telegraph, who received a midnight telephone call telling him a car would be ready in the morning to take him to the Tunisian border. “You know what you’ve done,” the caller said before hanging up.
McElroy was the fourth journalist ordered out in less than three weeks for offenses never quite spelled out. Others have been warned that they are on a list of future deportees.
“People think you are really nasty,” one government official cautioned a journalist with an American news organization. The menace crackles almost as loudly as the gunfire that echoes beyond the hotel in the dead of night.
Yet even within this gilded cage it is possible to glean important insights into the workings and mindset of the Gaddafi regime — and at least some of the reasons it is facing an uprising from citizens who in recent years have gained glimpses of an alternative world through the Internet and satellite television.
“Their efforts to run the press are similar to the way they run the country,” McElroy said. “It gives us the sense of how the state is and what things are like for ordinary Libyans.”
Bus trips are stage-managed affairs that always begin with a supposedly spontaneous demonstration by Gaddafi supporters who just happen to be on hand whenever journalists turn up. Yet out of earshot of the government, ordinary Libyans frequently sidle up to reporters and express dissenting views, a reminder that this is still a city brimming with suppressed discontent six weeks after the uprising here was crushed.
News briefings are exercises in parallel realities. One speaker began by reprimanding journalists for not showing enough respect for Gaddafi. “Brother Leader Moammar Gaddafi does not belong only to Libyans, he belongs to all mankind including yourselves,” an army spokesman, Col. Milad Hussein, sternly told a stunned roomful of reporters.
Government officials announce a cease-fire, then another, and then reproach reporters for failing to report that the Libyan army is observing a cease-fire. Yet even as the government trumpets its cease-fires, TV networks report the latest fighting on the front lines. Officials seem genuinely outraged that reporters are questioning their claims of multiple civilian casualties in NATO bombing raids even though they have presented no evidence that there are widespread casualties.
Most Libyans find themselves in a bubble, too. The Internet has been cut off for the past month, and satellite TV has been jammed. Some Libyans have found a way around that, but for many the only source of information is state TV, which broadcasts an endless diet of martial music, marching soldiers and ecstatic crowds extolling Gaddafi’s virtues.
That was why the outburst of Iman al-Obaidi, the woman dragged screaming from the hotel after she tried to tell her story of rape at the hands of Gaddafi militiamen, was so revelatory. In an instant, she crystallized the harsh realities of the Libya the government goes to such lengths to prevent journalists from seeing.
The government had repeatedly promised that a few female correspondents would be allowed to interview Obaidi. But Sunday, they were told the interview would not take place after all.
A woman identified by government officials as Obaidi’s lawyer told a reporter Obaidi no longer wished to talk to journalists because her goal was “to get her rights, and that is happening now.” In the world of Libyan doublespeak, there’s no knowing what that might mean.