Par Antoine Grégoire, journaliste à Iloubnan

initially published on

Last week, a few days before the UN resolution 1973 imposing a No Fly Zone on Libya was voted by the UN security Council, a wave of alarming reports presented in the media the picture of the total collapse and defeat of the Libyan revolution.

This article argues that the situation on the ground is likely to be different from what it looked like. Gaddafi was not on the edge of any military victory. Due to certain logic of war, journalists and observers have a biased picture of the fighting and report only alarming news while the reality could be much more favourable to the revolution

The observers and news reports are based on journalists on the ground and official sources: the state TV for Gaddafi sources and the revolutionary sources such as official comments made by the spokesperson of the revolution.

News reports are forced to rely on both sources and to inform about the news reported by both State TV and the revolution side. Lacking information and not knowing who to trust, they usually adopt a neutral approach that biases the reports

Gaddafi has at his disposal a propaganda machine that has run for 42 years, revolutionaries have to rely on internet and spokespeople difficult to reach. It gives the impression that they are less reliable because their reports are often contradictory, or lacking information or more honest while Gaddafi propaganda is clear, one voiced and affirmative. For instance, when state TV says government is in control of a town, rebels reports are less clear stating that some areas remains under revolution control but are still under attack. It gives the impression of a clearer and more reliable picture emerging from Gaddafi’s sources.

But observers on the ground are also biased. One could assess that three circles: the heart, the second circle and the neutral. The heart is composed by people motivated by the revolution goal and ready to fight for it until the end. At a point that they have no choice: if Gaddafi wins they will most surely face a horrible fate.

The second circle is composed by people motivated or interested in joining the revolution. These people will follow the momentum, join the revolution for the victories but more likely to leave it or to flee facing defeat.

The third circle is neutral and has to switch sides following victory or defeat. In Benghazi, it is wise for Gaddafi supporters to lay low while in Tripoli, hanging a three colour flag on one’s balcony is impossible. This third circle has to switch: if Gaddafi’s forces are in a town, it is basic survival to put pictures of the “guide”. When they leave, three colour flags can be hung again. It gives the impression that Gaddafi controls some areas and cities although these so called strongholds could fall really easily as soon as revolution advances.

International observers only have the picture of the second or third circles as they are not ready to die with the first one if Gaddafi advances.

Another tricky bias is the use of airpower by Gaddafi. Air power is the most frightening weapon ever invented and it is much more frightening than devastating. One airstrike will kill 20 people but the effect on the people on the ground is terrifying. Death comes from the sky, nowhere to hide and totally random: air power has no front line and kills randomly people with guns or civilians trying to hide.

The use of airpower breaks the troupes morale on the ground and, for 1 killed, it is one hundred people who are going to flee for their lives, fighters or civilians. Most of observers, seeing this, are going to flee for their lives as well and thus witness long lines of people fleeing for their lives. The news report will contain the fear and the sentiment of defeat. In the town, however, a heart of fighters will stay and fight on the ground but no observer will be there to witness that. The Guardian blog admits this reality: observers left as soon as Gaddafi’s troupes were said to come and could only report the witnesses of people fleeing.

Also, Gaddafi is watching the news reports for intelligence as anyone does. For propaganda and intelligence reasons, it is sometime necessary to keep the media unaware of the real troupes locations. For this reason, some towns like Ras Lanouf were believed to be defended by the rebels but in fact the strong weapons and forces had already left the town when Gaddafi comes in order to defend the more important and strategic cities like Ajdabayia and Benghazi.

This logic make hard for international observers to understand which side is really winning and they are quick to say that Gaddafi will ultimately wins, that the rebellion is fading, morale is broke and things are over.

This piece made by France24 special reporter in Benghazi shows exactly that phenomenon, speaking of “fading support” for rebellion. The quick advance made by Gaddafi’s troupes and the fear experienced by reporters on the ground forced them to give credit to Gaddafi’s propaganda:
France 24 reporter now “believes that while the Gaddafi regime has long warned that there would be a crackdown on any opposition, this time, the Libyan strongman’s threats seemed convincing.”
Vanier confirms that every journalists left Ajdabayia “when situation was no longer safe” and, before leaving Benghazi, he started to hear some people in the town openly speaking of supporting Gaddafi or to make concessions..

Another biased report comes from the media attention to what the international community is doing: it was necessary for world leaders and diplomats to worsen the situation and to give greater attention to the informations stressing that Libyan revolution was to be crushed “within hours” as Alain Juppé, French Foreign Minister said at the UN.

Also the calls to international community made by Libyan revolution spokesperson or supporters had to insist on Gaddafi’s winning reality to increase the urgency.

On the ground, however, Gaddafi does not seem to win at all, even before the international intervention. At 1.40pm last Thursday, State TV affirmed that Misruta had been retaken by the Gaddafi’s forces. Two hours later Gaddafi himself said that “the battle for Misruta” would be decided today. He added that Benghazi will fall without fighting. Gaddafi continued to fire battle on Misruta even after the international intervention started to strike and, this tuesday, it is still unclear if he controls Misruta or not.

AFP reports that two of Gaddafi’s planes were shot down by the revolution during an attack against the Benina airport near Benghazi. This attack confirms the rebel reports that Benina airbase has defected, bringing helicopters and fighter jets to the revolution.

Gaddafi’s forces also experience very hard resistance in Misruta and Ajdabayia despite the claims from Saif al Islam that everything will be over in the next 48 hours and despite the western news reports saying that Benghazi was on the edge of falling.

Last week, even before the UN vote, Gaddafi declared one Tuesday and on Sunday two ceasefires he did not respected. These calls seems desperate as Gaddafi, who initially vowed to “fight until the last bullet” is not supposed to publicly show any mercy. He is ready to weaken his image of a merciful ruler controlling the situation by calling on treacherous ceasefire in a desperate attempt to gather a military victory on the ground.

Contradictory to many news reports, no, Gaddafi was not winning at all and most surely had very little chance to do so even before the international intervention. Now the international airstrikes are on the news, the Libyan revolution probably prefers to wait until they are over and most of Gaddafi’s forces destroyed before they start to advance again. Even if some western news report claims that the revolution is weak, proven by the fact they are not conquering new cities, for them to wait remains the most reasonable military strategy.

(initially published on


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