TRIPOLI, Libya — The baby girl lying on a hospital bed was presented as a victim of a NATO airstrike, proof that the alliance was killing rather than protecting Libyan civilians.
But as journalists crowded around her bed, a handwritten note was passed to a Reuters reporter by a member of the hospital’s medical staff.
“This is a case of road traffic accident,” it said in English. “This is the trouth [sic].”
Nearly three months into NATO’s bombing campaign, Moammar Gaddafi’s government churns out daily propaganda about the alliance supposedly inflicting civilian casualties. Last week, it said that 718 people had died from mid-March to late May and that 4,067 had suffered significant injuries.
But it has failed to show foreign journalists more than a handful of dead or wounded people. Indeed, when reporters are taken on official trips, what they see suggests that NATO is being accurate and careful.
In the past week alone, up to a dozen loud explosions have been heard in Tripoli every night, but reporters are allowed to see only a fraction of the bombed sites.
On Sunday, journalists were taken to look at some broken windows in a church but were not allowed to visit a nearby military site that had been destroyed. Then they were taken to a farm and shown a dead dog and dead chickens.
A man there said no humans had been injured, but that story changed by the time the journalists reached the Sharia al-Zawiyah hospital.
As the baby slept, a man arrived at the bedside and was introduced first as a Health Ministry spokesman, and then as a neighbor of the family.
“Killing our children, this is what NATO does,” he said, giving his name as Imad Gheith. Prompted by an official at his side, he repeated the regime’s slogan. “God, Moammar, Libya, that’s all we need.”
A few hours later, in the early hours of Monday, the journalists were taken on another trip, to a different part of town, to see a rusty rocket lying in a field behind some houses, a wooden picnic table overturned and a furrow gouged in the earth.
“Were there any civilian casualties?” one reporter shouted.
“Look, the table,” an official replied.
A family emerged, and the reporters were told that they were having “lunch” in the field when the rocket struck around midnight.
Then, Gheith was spotted. Pressed on why he had come here, he eventually admitted that he was a Libyan “journalist” who worked for the government’s media operations team.
Then, as he explained that the rocket had fallen from the sky and gestured at the NATO warplane still audible overhead, a reporter saw Cyrillic lettering on a piece of the rocket, which looked more like part of a Russian Scud than a NATO missile.
The story quickly changed. Perhaps NATO had bombed a Libyan military site and this rocket was part of the debris, Gheith suggested.
It feels like some vast piece of political improvisation, with the participants just riffing off the central theme — NATO is killing Libyans, all of whom love Gaddafi — without any regard for the truth.
The propaganda machine grinds on, with officials filling out reports of trips conducted for the news media, perhaps without even admitting to themselves that no one had been convinced.
Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said it was not government policy to make up stories for the media, but he admitted that residents might occasionally exaggerate “to show journalists there is injustice and targeting of civilians.”
Not that NATO is beyond reproach in this surreal propaganda war. In late May, the British government declared that it had used precision-guided weapons to bring down guard towers at Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziyah compound and said that the Libyan regime would no longer be able to hide behind “high walls” to spread terror and crush opposition.
A trip to the area the following day showed the towers and the walls still intact.
In the real war, rather than the propaganda one, rebels Monday seized all of the mountain town of Yafran, 60 miles southwest of Tripoli, driving Gaddafi’s forces from the lower end of the town, where they had been camped for more than a month.
Although the advance could be seen as a sign that NATO was slowly changing the battlefield balance of power, the alliance’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, repeated calls for NATO members to get more involved.
“In general terms, I will request broad support for our operation in Libya, if possible increased contributions, if possible more flexible use of the assets provided,” he said in Brussels, before a meeting of NATO defense ministers this week.