Even though a growing number of foreign journalists are covering the bloody clashes between government and opposition forces in Libya, the reports trickling out of the country remain murky.
On Sunday morning, for example, heavy gunfire erupted in Tripoli, which has served as Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi's stronghold since the uprising began in mid-February. A government spokesman claimed the gunfire was in celebration of Qaddafi's forces retaking key opposition-controlled cities like Zawiyah and closing in on the rebels' headquarters in the eastern city of Benghazi, and not indicative of any fighting in the capital.
But foreign journalists based in Tripoli weren't so sure. The Guardian's Peter Beaumont observed that "the first salvos of gunfire ... sounded far more aggressive in intent than the widespread celebratory fire and honking of car horns that later overtook it. Protesters, meanwhile, suggested that the gunfire may have resulted from internal fighting within Qaddafi's security forces, according to David K. Kirkpatrick of The New York Times. When Beaumont traveled to Zawiyah to determine which side was in control there, he was detained just outside of the town with other journalists, though he managed to "hear the sound of long exchanges" and catch a glimpse of "fresh troops entering the city at midday." Opposition leaders in strategic locations such as Ras Lanuf and Misrata told The Guardian that the government hadn't seized control of the towns.
The episode illustrates the limits of foreign reporting in Libya. Journalists are collecting whatever information they can from interviews and firsthand accounts, but their efforts are often frustrated by restricted access and conflicting and confusing reports from government and opposition spokespeople.
Kirkpatrick explains that when Qaddafi invited around 130 foreign journalists to Tripoli last week, he bused them to areas of the country where where anti-government protesters had destroyed property or seized control. "Perhaps Libyan officials expected the reporters to corroborate the government’s view that the insurgents were violent Islamic extremists," Kirkpatrick reasons, "but there was no evidence of an Islamist connection, and the rebels described far greater violence from Colonel Qaddafi’s forces. By Friday, the government appeared to be struggling to ride herd on the journalists."
The AFP reports that Libyan authorities threatened foreign journalists in Tripoli with arrest or discontinued internet access if they left their hotel unaccompanied on Friday. Journalists at the Rixos hotel were only allowed to leave the premises once, on an organized tour led by government officials. When an AFP reporter managed to approach a pro-Qaddafi demonstration in Tripoli's Green Square, fifteen policemen escorted the correspondent to a taxi that took him straight back to the hotel.
In numerous public appearances, Qaddafi has accused the international media of spreading exaggerated accounts of the Libyan uprising.