Libyan Elections: Burying the Amnesty Report

In January 2005, we described how the British media were united in celebrating Iraq’s ‘first free election in decades’. (Leader, “Vote against violence”, The Guardian, January 7, 2005)

The BBC’s main evening news reported “the first democratic election in fifty years” (BBC1, News at Ten, January 10, 2005). The Daily Telegraph wrote of “the first democratic elections” (Leader, “Mission accomplished”, Daily Telegraph, December 6, 2004). The Independent argued that “democratic and free elections can bring a hope of peace” (Borzou Daragahi, “Bin Laden backs deputy Zarqawi”, The Independent, December 28, 2004).

In their excellent book, Demonstration Elections (South End Press, 1984), Edward Herman and Frank Brodhead listed six criteria of election integrity:

Freedom of speech.
Freedom of the media.
Freedom of organization of intermediate groups.
The absence of highly developed and pervasive instruments of state-sponsored terror.
Freedom of party organization and ability to field candidates.
Absence of coercion and fear on the part of the general population.

As Herman and Brodhead noted, a good way of  “looking at the validity of elections is to examine the conditions making for a free election and see how the actual electoral case conforms to these criteria.”

But this the US-UK mass media never seriously attempt to do in covering elections in states newly ‘liberated’ by the West. Instead:

Following the government’s lead, the media accept the election at face value, focusing on the personalities of candidates, the surface mechanics of election day procedure, and other secondary matters and propaganda gambits, the most important being the alleged efforts to disrupt the election by the bad guys. They carefully avoid or downgrade issues such as the prior decimation of a political opposition, death squads as an institutionalized phenomenon, and the exclusion of major political opposition groups from participation.

In regard to Iraq, for example, serious analysis was replaced by the simplistic message that, no matter how much killing the ‘coalition of the willing’ had done (with journalists consistently undercounting the death toll by an order of magnitude) at least ‘we’ had brought political freedom to Iraq.

But tragicomedy was always close at hand. On the BBC’s Newsnight programme, Jon Leyne reported that the victorious Shia United Iraqi Alliance would choose a new prime minister from two candidates: “both religious Shiites, but also both acceptable to the Americans”. (Leyne, Newsnight, February 14, 2005)

Leyne continued: “We call them a religious Shiite alliance… but they’re very sensitive to what the Americans would feel if guys with turbans took over this country.”

And indeed everyone, of course, knew that ‘democracy’ in Iraq had to be ‘sensitive’ to American concerns, not least in regard to ‘guys with turbans’ (which sounded like a euphemism for ‘towelheads’). It was obvious what ‘acceptable to the Americans’ meant for the claim that the elections were in any real sense ‘free’. Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to Bush I, made the point in April 2003:

‘What’s going to happen the first time we hold an election in Iraq and it turns out the radicals win? What do you do? We’re surely not going to let them take over.’ (Quoted, Walter Gibbs, “Scowcroft Urges Wide Role For the UN in Postwar Iraq”, The New York Times, April 9, 2003)

That was clear, as was the lesson implicit in the punishment meted out to Iraq’s third city, Fallujah, just weeks before the election. Smeared by the media as an insurgent ‘stronghold’, the city was subjected to all-out assault by US forces, leaving 70 per cent of the houses and shops destroyed, and at least 800 civilians dead. (“Fallujah still needs more supplies despite aid arrival”, IRIN News, November 30, 2004)

Also, in October 2004, the prestigious scientific journal, The Lancet, published a report estimating that almost 100,000 more Iraqi civilians had died than would have been expected had the invasion not occurred.

The media turned a blind eye to this and much other evidence clearly challenging the claim that elections were conducted in the “absence of coercion and fear on the part of the general population” and without “the prior decimation of a political opposition”. Instead, with smoke still rising from the ruins of Fallujah, the likes of Ewen MacAskill in the Guardian reported that Iraq was preparing “for the country’s first democratic election”. (MacAskill, “Blair ‘feels the danger’ on visit to Baghdad”, December 22, 2004)

Libya – ‘Dawn Of A New Era’

The same media, echoing different politicians, are this month responding in near-identical fashion to elections in Libya. In line with Herman and Brodhead’s analysis there has been much discussion of ‘personalities of candidates’ and other ‘secondary matters’, but no serious attempt to judge the integrity of the elections against rational criteria. The Telegraph reported: “A coalition led by the Western-educated political scientist and former interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril appears to have won Libya’s first free elections in 60 years…”

The Times hailed Libya’s “first free elections today” (James Hider, “After the pain, a hope for liberty and democracy”, The Times, July 7, 2012).

Luke Harding wrote in the Guardian: “Libya’s former interim prime minister Mahmoud Jibril has won a landslide victory in the country’s first democratic election…”

Barack Obama described the elections as “another milestone in the country’s transition to democracy”. The European Union hailed the “dawn of a new era”.

In selling Libya’s elections as free and fair, the media have had little to say about a report by Amnesty International published as Libyans were preparing to vote, “Libya: Rule of law or rule of militias?” (July 2012), based on the findings of an Amnesty visit to Libya in May and June 2012.

Amnesty reported “the mounting toll of victims of an increasingly lawless Libya, where the transitional authorities have been unable or unwilling to rein in the hundreds of militias formed during and after the 2011 conflict”.

The militias are now “threatening the very future of Libya and casting a shadow over landmark national elections… They are killing people, making arbitrary arrests, torturing detainees and forcibly displacing and terrorizing entire communities… They are also recklessly using machineguns, mortars and other weaponry during tribal and territorial battles, killing and maiming bystanders. They act above the law, committing their crimes without fear of punishment.” There is “a very real risk that the patterns of abuse that inspired the ’17 February Revolution’ [sic] will be reproduced and entrenched”.

Amnesty added:

The authorities have also failed to resolve the situation of entire communities displaced during the conflict and unable to return to their homes, which were looted and burned by armed militias seeking revenge… The entire population of the city of Tawargha, estimated at 30,000, was driven out by Misratah militias and remains scattered across Libya, including in poorly resourced camps in Tripoli and Benghazi.

Not only are such communities barred from going home; they also continue to face arbitrary arrest and other reprisals. These human rights violations are taking place against the backdrop of a judicial system that simply cannot cope with the volume of cases and is failing to provide justice and redress.

Indeed Kim Sengupta reported in the Independent this week on horrendous conditions facing Tawerghans forced to live in an old cement factory in the outskirts of Benghazi:

The outside of it has been turned into camps that serve as a sprawling “home” for people from his city – about 17,000 of them in all, who shelter in shacks made out of PVC pipes.

Sengupta commented:

Not many Tawerghans turned up at the polling stations set up at the camp. “Would voting bring back my son? He is a prisoner, or maybe they have killed him. I do not know. We are not free to find out,” said Raga Ahdwafi, a 50 year-old resident of the camp.

Undeterred, Sengupta blithely concluded his article with a comment reviewing “Libya’s first free election in half a century”.

Amnesty noted more problems impacting on the credibility of elections:

Public criticism of the thuwwar [revolutionaries], who are widely hailed as heroes, is uncommon. Even officials, activists, journalists, lawyers and victims of human rights violations who privately acknowledge the prevailing lawlessness and abuses committed by the thuwwar do not raise their concerns in public, fearing reprisals. Their fears are justified.

As for any new government:

They will inherit a country with weak and unaccountable institutions and devoid of independent civil society organizations and political parties. The legacy of powerful officials and security forces acting above the law will not be easy to dismantle.

According to the LexisNexis database, the words “Libya”,  “election”,  and “Amnesty” have appeared in just four national mainstream newspaper articles in the last month.

In one of these four articles, Patrick Cockburn reported that clashes between rival tribes and communities were “leaving hundreds dead”. Worryingly for free speech, Cockburn noted that this kind of bad news from Libya is being suppressed:

The widespread arbitrary detention and torture of people picked up at checkpoint by the thuwwar (revolutionaries) is not publicised because the Libyan government wants to play them down, or people are frightened of criticising the perpetrators and becoming targets.

Cockburn cited Amnesty report researcher Diana Eltahawy’s view that “things are not getting better”. Eltahawy commented that in May the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) passed a law giving immunity to the ‘thuwwar’ for any act they carry out in defence of ‘the 17 February Revolution’ last year. Interrogations by militias, though very often involving torture, are deemed to carry legal weight. Eltahawy said there is “a climate of self-censorship” within the post-Gaddafi government about these abuses.

Part of the problem, Cockburn added, is that “foreign governments and media alike… rejoiced in the overthrow of Gaddafi last year” and so “they do not want bad news to besmirch their victory”. A rare example of honest criticism directed by a corporate journalist at his own colleagues. As the burying of the Amnesty report suggests, the implications of this “bad news” for claims of electoral integrity have not been seriously discussed anywhere.

And what about the West’s goals for the elections? We have to leave the ‘mainstream’ media far behind if we are to encounter common sense analysis of this kind from the World Socialist Web Site:

The elections for a new General National Congress in Libya are an attempt to provide a “democratic” facade for an authoritarian and undemocratic government, subservient to the interests of the major Western powers, corporations and banks.

The NATO-installed National Transitional Council (NTC) ensured that candidacy was restricted to a relatively small layer approved by the Electoral Commission.

The reality, as Herman and Brodhead noted way back in 1984, is that the US government uses the symbolic value of a client state election “to mobilize home support for its preferred policies… to mislead the home populace about both the situation in the occupied country and the intentions of the US government” and is thus “designed to win approval of external policy by deception”. This applies equally to the UK government, of course, and is unlikely to change any time soon.

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.