Foreign journalists in Tripoli, who are in Libya at the invitation--and whim--of Muammar Qaddafi's government, spend a lot of time holed up at the five-star Rixos Hotel, and it's not just because they want to avoid the NATO airstrikes raining down on the capital. As Sky News's Mark Stone explains, it's also because they can't venture outside without government "translators" in tow, spinning the regime's side of the story and restricting the reporters' movements. Over the weekend, however, Stone managed to challenge the government's narrative of events without ever leaving the Rixos, in what he's calling "hotel-room journalism" and what Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell is describing as a "great example of 21st century reporting."
Here's how it all went down. On Friday, Stone got a call from his editor in London, who told him Libyan state TV was reporting that a NATO airstrike in the eastern town of Brega had killed many civilians. Stone immediately called Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim, a fellow Rixos guest, who told him that the assault had killed imams staying at a guesthouse. Stone noted the regime's account in a report filed on Friday:
Mussa Ibrahim, a spokesman for Col Gaddafi's government, told Sky News that religious leaders were among the dead.
"This is the most horrendous, terrible attack so far. Last night Libyan TV were broadcasting live from a religious gathering of over 100 people in Brega town.
"After the gathering the religious leaders and civilians left and stayed in a guest house in Brega. Nato attacked the guest house at dawn today.
But Stone also expressed skepticism about Ibrahim's report. Why would imams be conducting a religious ceremony in a town where civilians had fled the fighting in droves? None of the dead shown on state TV appeared to be wearing religious garments, he noticed. Then, a NATO source told Stone that the site hit was a "command and control structure being used to target civilians."
Within an hour of publishing the story, Stone's Twitter feed started lighting up, with several Libyans vaguely mentioning a bunker in Brega and one referencing a Dutch construction company. Stone Googled "Brega Bunker Dutch" and landed on an interview with an engineer named Freek Landmeter, which his Twitter followers helped him translate from Dutch to English. In the interview, Landmeter gave the bunker's coordinates, which prompted Stone to ask Ibrahim for the location of the guesthouse. Ibrahim complied on Saturday morning, sending journalists a yellow slip of paper with the precise coordinates. Stone and his cameraman entered the two sets of coordinates into Google Earth on an iPhone and found that the bunker and guesthouse were right beside each other:
Stone soon found Landmeter's contact information on Twitter, and video chatted with the Dutch engineer on Skype. Landmeter explained that he'd built an underground "communications bunker" below a guesthouse in 1988 for Qaddafi to use in the event of an attack:
Through it all, Stone never left his hotel, making use instead of the digital tools available to today's journalists. Ibrahim has told Stone that he doesn't know anything "about bunkers in Brega," and Stone is now investigating whether religious leaders were truly killed. If they were, he writes, "the Libyans still need to explain why religious leaders were invited to stay above one of Colonel Gaddafi's command & control bunkers."