The role of mass media in armed conflict: A Libyan case study


“From the cowardice which shrinks from new truth, from the laxness that is content with half-truth, from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth, oh God of truth, deliver us!”(2)

When it comes to reporting on armed conflict, few pleas could be as apt as this. Rather than a mere spectator, the media has, in modern times, become an active actor in modern conflict and a rather powerful one at that, given its power to influence public perception and set political agendas.

While state-controlled media outlets have (naturally) presented a one-sided view of the Libyan conflict, their independent counterparts have shown similar flaws in both reporting and analysis. There has been an acute dearth of in-depth analysis on broader issues surrounding the conflict such as the formation of the rebel force, the impending economic costs of the war, and the forthcoming profits to be made off of this war. What has made such failure more disappointing is the media’s preoccupation with details unrelated to the conflict itself. Tabloids aside, respectable media outlets ran story after story on trivialities ranging from Aisha Qadhaffi’s peculiar taste in furniture (see infamous mermaid couch) to Saadi Qadhaffi’s fascination with wildlife.(3) More disappointing is the way in which the public has easily given over to such sensationalism, which brings us to question whether the human suffering element of conflict has become too mundane for journalists to focus on, and whether a decade of unprecedented aggression has left the masses desensitised to the impact of war on civilians.

Using the Libyan civil war as a case study, this paper explores the media’s role in modern conflict. Particular emphasis is placed on the media’s shortcomings in its reporting and analysis of the conflict, highlighting the double standards that the media has given into. Additionally, the paper draws parallels between the wars in Iraq and Libya in an effort to illustrate the errors repeatedly carried out by mass media.

Glaring blunders

Some of the reporting that has come out of Libya leaves one to wonder how much information is actually obtained on the ground and how much comes from inside the Rixos Hotel. There is no shortage of examples to illustrate this point. Such examples range from the utterly ridiculous (such as reports on the bombing of Mizda harbour by Libyan warships, when Mizda is actually a thousand kilometres away from the Libyan coastline, and hence has no harbour), to the wishful (such as reports which alleged that Qadhaffi had fled to Venezuela), to the highly questionable (such as an al-Jazeera report claiming that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) had shot down a scud missile, when, in fact, most experts contend that a plane shooting down a Scud missile is a technical impossibility).(4)

However, more to the point is what mainstream media has failed to report. The Libyan revolution has been grouped together with those occurring in the rest of the Arab world. What the media failed to point out was that, unlike the revolutions of Egypt or Tunisia, the Libyan uprising was, from the outset, violent in nature. Government properties such as police stations in Tripoli and Benghazi were set alight during the early days of the uprising.(5) Similarly, explosives were used to gain access to military barracks.(6) It is fundamental to note that governments possess the authority to deal with protests and, from a realistic viewpoint, violent action will be met with a violent response. Even a democratic state such as South Africa, with one of the most progressive and liberal constitutions in the world, affords its citizens the right to protest as long as such protests remain peaceful and protestors are unarmed.(7) It is a given that Muammar Qadhaffi’s Government used excessive force in dealing with such problems, thus an attempt is not made to condone the violence used against Libyan protestors, but rather to highlight the way in which the media dealt with the issue out of context. The question to ask here is whether any state would tolerate the storming of sensitive areas such as military barracks and ammunition sites without taking firm action against those participating. What makes the issue significant is that “violence against civilians” was the rationale used to justify NATO’s intervention into Libya, but that such rationale ignored the factors surrounding such action. This ignorance was carried over by mass media, which has led to a very obscure public perception on the Libyan issue as a whole.

Among the most important questions that have gone unanswered are those concerning Libya’s rebel force, which has been portrayed as a “rag-tag” group of civilians who spontaneously and courageously took up arms against the Qadhaffi regime. No evident attempts have been made to investigate exactly where, when, and how this force was put together. Rather than a spontaneous coming together of protestors, Libya saw a very different sort of group emerge at the forefront. From the outset, it was evident that the group was well-armed, well-organised, and well-funded. It has been accepted that after March 2011, the rebels were being openly armed and funded by countries such as Britain and France. However, no attempts were made to uncover the position of the rebels at the very beginning of the uprising or how this seemingly spontaneous group was able to set up a central bank as early as March 2011; a considerable time before the Qadhaffi regime had fallen.(8) More striking is the way in which the media portrayed this as a regular occurrence in an uprising, with agencies such as Reuters not asking why and how such an institution could be set up with such speed and at such an early stage, but rather focusing on technical details such as the type of currency used by the bank.(9) Similarly, mass media has not examined key players behind the rebel force, many of whom were part of the previous Government, and some of whom are now leading Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) and are set to play a big role in the “new Libya.”

When talking of Qadhaffi “loyalists”, as they have come to be known, the media has portrayed an exclusively military force, giving no regard to the civilian masses that still support Qadhaffi. Moreover, the media has failed to explore the reasons behind such support and, in doing so, has painted Libya as another North African country, grappling with poverty and underdevelopment. Here, certain crucial facts have been ignored, such as:

* Libya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (per capita) stands as one of the highest in Africa.(10)
* Libya has no public debt, in stark comparison to its Egyptian and Tunisian neighbours whose public debts amount to 72% and 42% (of the countries’ total GDPs) respectively.(11)
* The population living below poverty line in Libya stood at 7.4% at the beginning of 2011 in comparison to 23% in Algeria, 20% in Egypt, and 15% in Morocco.
* Libya has an impressive education system, with education being free from primary level up until tertiary level.(12) Also successful were state initiatives to reach certain isolated parts of Libya through “mobile” school projects. A result of this system has been the highest literacy rate in North Africa – 82% – whereas Algeria stands at 69%, Egypt at 71%, Morocco at 52%, and Tunisia at 74%.(13)
* Fully subsidised by the state is healthcare in Libya, with the number of medical practitioners and facilities on the increase, steadily since 1965.(14) Attached to this is one of the lowest infant mortality rates on the continent (20/per 1,000 live births) along with the highest life expectancy in Africa (78 years).(15)

The question of oil

The war has often been depicted from a state’s point of view, with the media regurgitating almost every bit of information passed on by NATO powers. Comments such as: “And your friends in Britain and France will stand with you as you build your democracy and build your country for the future”(16) and “We are prepared to continue military operations as long as our Libyan friends need them”(17) have become common notions, portraying Libya’s freedom and democracy as the prime concerns for Western nations when, in fact, nothing could be more far-fetched.(18) When such theatrics are performed with straight faces by the likes of Cameron and Sarkozy, it does indeed merit some amazement; however, when the media does so, it is a totally different issue. While the media’s duty obviously includes reporting the official accounts given by Governments, this duty must be said to extend further to challenge such accounts. In doing so, the media would fulfil its role of “watchdog,” which is of critical importance in any healthy democracy. Furthermore, media establishments will, in this way, keep their counterparts in check. The speed with which news travels in modern times means that misinformation passes with greater ease. Take, for example, the fall of the Iraqi city of Basra in 2003, which was reported 17 times before the city actually fell, with one incorrect report echoing the next.

The media has failed to delve into important historical and contemporary considerations when discussing the rationale for NATO’s intervention in Libya. For instance, four years after seizing power in 1969, Qadhaffi demanded that foreign companies profiting off of Libyan oil increase their revenues to Libya. Western companies grudgingly complied, and Libya’s revenues quickly increased from 50% to 79%. Much to the dismay of Western nations, other oil-producing countries quickly followed suit.(19) In the late 1980s, the Libyan Government took further steps to strengthen domestic industries when it acquired oil-refining companies such as Tamoil, which effectively “cut out the middleman” and allowed Libya to refine its own oil, thereby maximising profits for the country.(20) Moreover, when Libya’s oil sector did eventually open to foreign companies, Qadhaffi remained adamant about the extent of concessions granted and kept the threat of nationalisation looming in order to force compliance with Libyan demands, refusing to sell at prices too low to satisfy national interests.(21) This set Libya apart from other oil-producing, Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia.

While many academics and journalists have brushed off the question of oil in relation to NATO’s intervention into Libya, it cannot be ignored that Libya has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa and the ninth largest in the world, and that Western nations would stand to benefit in much greater measure from a Libyan regime that was more willing to cooperate, unlike the Qadhaffi Government. Furthermore, it should be remembered that upon seizing power, Qadhaffi shut down British and US military bases in Libya, which effectively left the West with much less authority in the Maghreb (unlike the Gulf, where states such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are all home to US military bases).

The nature of conflict has changed since World War II. Whereas previously wars were detrimental to the economies of participating nations, conflict can now translate into hugely profitable enterprises for states and their private sectors. In this regard, post-invasion Iraq may be explored. By 2007, multinational corporation Halliburton was said to have made profits in excess of ZAR 165 billion (US$ 20 billion) from the Iraq war for reconstruction work, which was paid for by Iraq.(22) Along with this, the privatisation of the oil sector was put into motion, with foreign companies making huge profits off of the war. Here, the Bush administration drafted legislation for the Iraqi Government, which allowed companies such as BP and Shell to sign 30-year contracts with Iraq. Indebted to their Western “liberators”, Iraq’s new Government passed such laws and allowed the privatisation of large chunks of the country’s oil industry. Such laws worked to the detriment of Iraqis’ already grappling with the destruction caused by the war because:
(1) no limits were placed on the amounts of profits foreign companies could take out of the country (which in turn led to major cuts in social spending), and
(2) no conditions were set regarding the importing of foreign workers which cost many Iraqis their jobs and contributed to the country’s unemployment on a wholesale level.(23)

Such consequences of the invasion were not reported by mainstream media, as is the case with the “cooperation” currently taking place between Libya’s NTC and their Western allies. If more media attention had been given to Libya’s economic status, social system, and oil policies, one could very well arrive at the conclusion put forward by war-correspondent John Pilger: that it was not Libya’s human rights record which so irked the West, but rather Libya’s independence.(24)

Why has the media been meek on the Libyan issue?

A large portion of the foreign press reporting from Libya has been embedded with Libya’s rebel force. As in Iraq, embedding has produced similar results with journalists reporting on the conflict from the perspective of only one party to the conflict. The challenge of embedding lies in the fact that the military/rebel force is given full power over what journalists see, where they go, and thus what they will report.

Along with this, reporters had to contend with Qadhaffi’s outlandish statements, together with those of Western leaders referring to massacres that were about to take place at the beginning of the uprising, which sparked fears of a real humanitarian disaster in line with those of Rwanda or Sudan. This, together with the fact that it was a time of great jubilation and hope in the Arab world, few journalists would have wanted to be seen as supporting repression. In this regard, it was simpler to portray the uprising in black and white, as good versus evil, thus ignoring the finer details of the war.

Lost in semantics

It is not only the ideas expressed that have a great impact on the public, but also the way in which such ideas are expressed. The addition or omission of certain words and terms can shape the way in which conflict will come to be viewed by the general public. Whether factually sound or not, an idea will become entrenched and accepted if repeated often enough. The media has focused on the “situation in Libya”, the “Libyan issue”, and the “conflict in Libya.” However, only a small portion of the media has labelled the conflict for what it is: a civil war. In doing so, the media has not touched on the internal nature of the conflict. Had it done so, there would have perhaps been greater objection to NATO’s intervention into the country, as it is a fact that under international law, outside powers have no authority to involve themselves in the internal conflicts of other, sovereign countries.

In the same vein, we may examine the role of Saudi “forces,” which are being used in Bahrain and Yemen to facilitate brutal onslaughts of protestors by the Al-Khalifah and Saleh regimes. Interesting to note is that though the Saudi “forces” essentially fulfil the same purpose as Qadhaffi’s mercenaries, the language used to describe the two groups has been so utterly different that opposition to these two forces has taken on two completely different forms. A slightly different illustration, which presents the same flawed reporting, is found in Iraq. In Libya, the media speaks of “mercenaries”, pointing to an ugly, repugnant force, whereas in Iraq, mercenaries are granted legitimacy — the very phenomenon has turned into a profession (see the role of companies such as Blackwater in this regard), now called the “private security industry.” Through the careless use of words, we have ignored certain pertinent points; the most important being that mercenaries are unlawful combatants under the Geneva Conventions.(25) It is expected that states will push a certain agenda in times of war, going so far as to hide certain truths by using a clever spin on words. It is, however, unacceptable when the media acts in a similar way. Even if there is no active effort to disseminate information or to push a certain agenda, the media has failed in not holding such intricacies of war up to genuine scrutiny.

Repeating the mistakes of Iraq

Despite this era being marked by growing democracy and unprecedented progress in the field of human rights, the paradox lies here: wars have become increasingly barbaric with civilian death tolls standing higher than at any other time in history. To illustrate this point, we may look at the following statistics: In World War I, civilians made up 10% of fatalities, 50% in World War II, 70% during the Vietnam War, and an overwhelming 90% in the ongoing Iraq War. It is for this reason that mass media should exercise the greatest caution in reporting on conflict so as not to promote war. To justify an invasion into Iraq, Colin Powell addressed the United Nations (UN) in early 2003, presenting a host of dubious information. In his speech, Powell stated: “UNSCOM(26) [United Nations Special Commission] estimates that Saddam Hussein could have produced…” weapons of mass destruction. The media and public accepted this account as being evidence in itself. This, despite the fact that there was information available to suggest otherwise. Scott Ritter who, in his capacity as a UN weapons inspector, stated four years before the invasion that by 1998 Iraq’s weapons programmes and capabilities had been completely dismantled and that the threat emanating from Iraq was 0%. Along with this, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Charles Hanley investigated all the sites mentioned by the Bush administration as major threats and found that they were still sealed, as they had been in 1991 by UN inspectors. The credible accounts of Ritter and Hanley received no attention from mass media and the so-called “evidence” given by the British and US Governments was taken at face value. At what point does truth become irrelevant? No weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, Saddam Hussein was toppled, and al-Qaeda was not found to be operating out of Iraq, yet the war continues and, 10 years down the line, neither the media nor the general public can explain why this is so.

A Libyan illustration lies here: Numerous reports emerged claiming that Qadhaffi had used airstrikes on civilians and though no evidence (besides the two pilots who defected to Malta) was produced to substantiate such claims, the reports, which were presented as fact, spread like wild fire and led to the call for a no-fly-zone over Libya. What was ignored was that the Russian military had been monitoring the situation in Libya via satellite and had noted that no such activity had taken place.(27) Should this information not have been balanced up against the accounts that stated that airstrikes had indeed taken place? As pointed out by John Pilger, there was no fact-finding mission sent to Libya. The UN, instead, placed its reliance on doubtful media reports.(28)

Another interesting parallel may be drawn between the two cases. In 2003, an American Psychological Operations officer ordered the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein. The incident received huge press coverage and was revered as a symbolic moment tied to freedom and democracy. Media images showed Iraqis celebrating and cheering their American “saviours” on, as if this moment justified the strategy, which had been used that had caused unspeakable carnage across Iraq. The media has portrayed the very same images from Libya: Libyan jubilation, smiling rebels, and celebratory fire have become attached to the war. These images divert attention away from the blood being spilled, away from the lost infrastructure, and away from the chaos brought into the lives of ordinary Libyans. However, going back to Iraq, as journalist Rageh Omar pointed out, the most revealing moment was not the toppling of the statue but rather the moment prior to that when a US soldier covered the face of the statue with an American flag. Not an Iraqi flag or a flag depicting peace, but a flag which asserted the authority of the US over Iraq and its people, a symbol of imperialism. Had the Iraqis known then that nine years later they’d be facing plights worse than under Saddam’s regime, perhaps their reaction at the time would have been different.

In conclusion

The crux of the matter is that when the mass media has the power not only to influence millions of people across the globe, but also to set political agendas (though it is debateable to what degree), a greater degree of responsibility is expected. By playing on one side of the conflict and failing to report on fundamental issues, the media has failed to scrutinise the legitimacy of NATO’s intervention in Libya and has thus promoted war in a developing nation. Media (and, in turn, public) complacency will only serve to make hegemonic powers bolder in this increasingly popular business of war-mongering. The world is already witness to a war (in Iraq) that should have never taken place. Still, sketchy rhetoric on phantom threats that the world faces increases and is only amplified by mass media. Continuing along this path, one wonders if we would possibly see a war against Iran, against which hostile rhetoric keeps growing.(29)

Finally, Qadhaffi’s human rights record is no worse than Barrack Obama’s (see, for example, that little detention facility off the coast of Cuba where no domestic or international law is applicable; where shocking numbers of people are detained without charge and, at times, released without charge after years of incarceration and brutal torture). Here, such violations are not condoned, but rather put into a particular political context. Reporting one as an atrocity and the other as a sort of natural entitlement contributes to the demolition of the rule of law. What needs to be done is for media to hold states (and power as a whole) to account and, more specifically, to hold them to account by the same standards.


(1) Contact Raeesah Cassim Cachalia through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Conflict and Terrorism Unit ([email protected]).
(2) Author unknown.
(3) ‘Gaddafi pet zoo survives war unscathed’, Financial Times, 12 September 2011,
(4) ‘The Triple-lie of Tripoli’, Russia Today, 23 August 2011,
(5) ‘Libya protests: ‘Now we’ve seen the blood our fears have gone”, The Guardian, 21 February 2011,
(6) ‘The day the Katiba fell’, Al Jazeera, 1 March 2011,
(7) S17, Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 108 of 1996.
(8) ‘Libya, all about oil? Or central banking?’, Asia Times, 14 April 2011,
(9) ‘Libyan rebel central bank lacks reserves, eyes dinar’, Reuters, 12 May 2011,
(10) Index Mundi,
(11) International Monetary Fund,
(12) ‘Libya all about oil, or central banking?’, Asia Times, 14 April 2011,; ‘Skills around the world: Libya’, British Learning Council,
(13) Index Mundi,
(14) ‘Libya: A country study’, U.S Library of Congress,
(15) Index Mundi,
(16) ‘Libya: Cameron Praises ‘Courage of Lions”, Sky News, 16 September 2011,
(17) ‘Sarkozy Assures Libyan Rebel Leader’, The New York Times, 24 August 2011,
(18) An examination of military interventions carried out over the past two decades will indicate that, more often than not, hegemonic powers have become involved in “peacebuilding” in war-torn nations only when it is in their national interest to do so and not for altruistic reasons.
(19) ‘Shotgun Wedding’ For the Companies’, The Ledger, 8 October 1972,
(20) ‘Carlyle poised to bid for Libyan oil giant, says son of Gaddafi’, The Independent, 24 September 2006,; ‘More on the oil motive for NATO’s intervention in Libya’, Alienated Left, 23 June 2011,
(21) ‘Is Libya Going to Boot U.S Oil Companies’, Forbes, 22 January 2009,
(22) Klein, N., 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. London: Allen Lane; Interesting to note here is that the United States (US) vice-president at the time, Dick Cheney (who was an avid proponent of the Iraq invasion) had considerable holdings in Halliburton, from which he gained immense benefits once he left office in 2009.
(23) Klein, N., 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. London: Allen Lane.
(24) ‘David Cameron’s gift of war and racism, to them and to us’, John Pilger, 6 April 2011,
(25) Geneva Conventions, Additional Protocol 1, Article 47.
(26) United Nations Special Commission on Iraq.
(27) ‘”Airstrikes in Libya did not take place” – Russian military’, Russia Today, 1 March 2011,
(28) ‘David Cameron’s gift of war and racism, to them and to us’, John Pilger, 6 April 2011,
(29) Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, recently mentioned (and was the first to do so) that the Middle East’s biggest threat is, in fact, Israel. To illustrate the power of rhetoric: Israel has 200-300 nuclear warheads and has shown its propensity for hostility to other nations (i.e. the raid on Turkish aid flotilla), yet it is Iran that is constantly fingered as posing the greatest threat to the region’s security.

Written by Raeesah Cassim Cachalia (1)

Edited by: Consultancy Africa Intelligence CAI