‘Get Out, Black Animals’: what happened in Tawergha, Libya

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Media Lens, London, 18 January 2012

One might think that a corporate media system would act independently of the state – there is no formal mechanism of control. But as the ingrained bias sampled above indicates, this often turns out not to be the case. With regard to human rights, for example, corporate media typically do not simply pick a subject and lavish it with attention. Rather, political power selects an issue, frames the coverage, and media corporations jump on the bandwagon.

Type a household name like ‘Halabja’ into the UK media database search engine Lexis-Nexis, for example, and it produces more than 1,800 references to Saddam Hussein’s 1988 gassing of Kurds. Similarly, the words ‘Srebrenica’ and ‘massacre’ generate nearly 3,000 hits. Both issues have been afforded vast, impassioned coverage.

In truth, for Western commentators, the importance of these horrors is most often rooted, not in the scale of suffering inflicted, but in their utility for justifying the West’s military interventions. Thus an editorial in the Independent observed of Libya:
‘Concern was real enough that a Srebrenica-style massacre could unfold in Benghazi, and the UK Government was right to insist that we would not allow this.’ (Leading article, ‘The mission that crept,’ Independent, July 29, 2011)

A Times editorial commented:
‘Without this early, though sensibly limited, intervention, there would have been a massacre in Benghazi on the scale of Srebrenica.’ (Leading article, ‘Death of a dictator,’ The Times, October 21, 2011)

Of course media concern for human rights could be sincere – journalists are human beings, after all, and human beings often do care about the killing of civilians. But then the record requires some explanation.

Consider the massacre of 53 Libyans at the hands of ‘rebel’ fighters in Sirte last October. The Daily Telegraph reported:
‘Human Rights Watch said 53 people appeared to have been shot dead in a hotel in the centre of the city when it was under the control of fighters from Misurata. The badly decomposed bodies, some with their hands bound behind their backs, were found in a garden of Hotel Mahari.’ (Ben Farmer, ‘Libya will be a “moderate” Muslim nation, country’s interim leader insists,’ Telegraph, October 25, 2011)

According to Lexis-Nexis, the word ‘Mahari’ generates a total of eight articles mentioning the massacre across the entire UK press, with one mention since October. Widening the search to ‘Sirte’ and ‘killing’ produces a few additional mentions.

Or consider the fate of the dark-skinned Tawergha people, former slaves brought to Libya in the 18th and 19th centuries. Until recently, some 31,000 of them lived in a coastal town, also named Tawergha, 250 km east of the capital Tripoli. The UN news agency IRIN reported the ethnic cleansing of the town by Nato-backed forces:
‘Their town sits empty – doors hanging open and homes burned; the sign leading to the city has been changed to New Misrata and its population told not to return.’

As for the people:
‘In an abandoned Turkish company compound on Airport Road in Tripoli, more than 1,500 displaced Tawergha spend their days brushing away flies and watching their children play with toy guns amid piles of rubbish.

‘Here, women and children have huddled around on the uncovered mattresses they sleep on, weeping. They arrived in early November after a physically and emotionally draining journey from Tawergha, having been displaced by armed men every time they settled somewhere new.

‘Every one told of a father, son or brother who is either dead or in jail…

‘[One] young woman told stories of Tawergha detainees receiving electric shocks, having cold water poured on them and being burned with cigarettes by the revolutionaries from Misrata who were holding them. “This is Abu Ghraib, not Libya!… We have done nothing wrong. If they continue to beat us and attack us for no reason, it will become a cycle,” she said.’

A rare, excellent mainstream article by Åsne Seierstad in The Times supplied additional details:
‘”Slaves,” says graffiti on a wall. On a road sign, the town’s name has been scribbled over. “Misrata,” it says now. The commander of the local victors, Ibrahim al-Halbous, had already said it: “Tawergha no longer exists, only Misrata.”’

The article continued:
‘”Brigade for cleansing of black slaves,” proclaims one scribbled message on a wall along the road to Misrata. “Hairdresser. Free haircut,” says another. Large sections of the town are in ruins after the battles.’

Seierstad found that Tawerghans were still not safe even in Tripoli:
‘Seven or eight people live in each room, in corridor after corridor, barrack after barrack.

‘But the construction site has no guards, and the avengers from Misrata can enter even here. They arrive at night. The men sleep fully clothed, ready to flee. Some nights earlier, an armed gang arrived at 2am. “You are all going to die,” they shouted. “Get out, black animals.”’ (Åsne Seierstad, ‘Four months ago, 30,000 people lived in this town. So where did they go?,’ The Times, December 3, 2011)

Last summer, the then Prime Minister of Libya’s National Transitional Council, Mahmoud Jibril, said:
‘When it comes to Tawergha, in my view, this is nobody’s business but the people of Misrata’s. This cannot be dealt with according to theories and textbooks about national reconciliation in South Africa, Ireland or Eastern Europe.’ (Seierstad, ibid.)

Using a different spelling, the Telegraph has so far supplied one sentence: ‘Tawarga has been forcibly emptied of residents by rebels and looted.’ (Richard Spencer; Ruth Sherlock; Rob Crilly, ‘Gaddafi’s son flees to Niger as rebels make more gains,’ Telegraph, September 12, 2011). The sentence doesn’t appear in the online version.

A Guardian article barely hinted at the ethnic cleansing, reporting merely that Tawarga’s ‘mostly black population fled in August when rebel forces captured it’. Chris Stephen described the ethnic cleansers’ attitude towards Tawargans as a ‘gripe’. Seumas Milne mentioned Tawerga in a single sentence.

According to Lexis-Nexis, the Independent has published two articles focusing on the atrocity – a substantial piece in September and a further 102 words in November, totalling 867 words.

Curiously, The Times has published the most significant mentions. In addition to Seierstad’s piece, Andrew Gilligan published a substantial report: ‘The ghost town where rebels took their revenge’ in September. (The Times, September 11, 2011)

A later article reported ‘The expulsion of the entire 30,000 population of Tawarga, a satellite town of Misrata…’ (Libya Tom, ‘Murder and rape campaign brings revenge to ghost town,’ The Times, September 29, 2011)

James Hider also commented briefly in October:
‘The town of Tawarga was accused by neighbouring Misrata of siding with Gaddafi’s forces, and is now all but deserted and largely ruined.’ (James Hider, ‘Where there was unifying hatred, now there is a vacuum,’ The Times, October 22, 2011)

Since Seierstad’s article on December 3, there have been no mentions in any UK newspaper of this clear case of ethnic cleansing by Western-backed forces. As ever, media outrage splutters and falls away when the West is implicated in a crime against humanity. And as ever, this could hardly contrast more starkly with the incandescent ‘Something must be done!’ outrage in response to the crimes of official enemies. Lexis-Nexis finds no mention of any British or American politician commenting on Tawergha’s fate, and finds no mentions in any editorials. Now imagine the coverage if Iran, or Syria, or North Korea had been responsible.

Commentators sometimes lament the fact that the ‘mainstream’ media system is ‘controlled’ by profit-seeking corporations. It is not; it is made up of corporations. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Media companies are key elements of a corporate system that utterly dominates politics. In reality, US-UK military interventions are state-corporate military interventions. It ought to come as no surprise that the corporate media propagandises on behalf of its own interventions and works hard to hide the ugly consequences from a public with the power to resist.

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