Libya A Dicey Beat For Reporters

It can be very dangerous work for the journalists involved in covering the civil unrest in the Middle East. Some reporters in Egypt were detained and even assaulted while reporting on the uprising there. But few places have been as tough to cover as Libya, where the country's authoritarian leader, Moammar Gadhafi, is fiercely clinging to power. Host Liane Hansen talks with NPR's David Folkenflik, who has been tracking the media coverage of the civil unrest in Egypt and Libya.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

It can be very dangerous work for the journalists involved covering the civil unrest in the Middle East. Some reporters in Egypt were detained and even assaulted while reporting on the uprising there. But few places have been as tough to cover as Libya, where the country's authoritarian leader Moammar Gadhafi is fiercely clinging to power.

NPR's David Folkenflik has been tracking the coverage and is in the NPR bureau in New York. David, what's different here?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Think about Egypt. I mean, for all the dangers that Egypt posed to people trying to cover there, Western reporters, it's traditionally a country that's more cosmopolitan, more receptive to the West and particularly to the Western press. It had been an ally to the U.S.

Libya - think about that - a rogue regime for a generation. Gadhafi, if anything, more authoritarian than Hosni Mubarak. As the State Department now points out - I've got a statement here - Libyan officials, still sympathetic to Gadhafi, say they consider reporters who are in the country in an unauthorized way to be terrorists allied to al-Qaida and they'll be treated accordingly.

That's just a hint of how repressive it still is there. Protesters have been using coded messages on a Middle Eastern equivalent of Match.com to coordinate actions, according to one story that I saw on ABCNews.com. This is a place that is very authoritarian. It has a tradition of it and Gadhafi is not giving up any of that without a fight.

HANSEN: So, where are the journalists reporting from then?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, right now, reporters have been able to get into the eastern part of the country on its eastern border it's shared with Egypt. Ben Wedeman of CNN getting some very incredible footage from cities there; our own Lourdes Garcia-Navarro; the New York Times; all from Benghazi in the east. Those are, of course, areas that have been held by forces that are antipathetic to Gadhafi that oppose him quite strongly.

In the meantime, Gadhafi officials have seemed to offer to invite some Western reporters there, and it's been a little befuddling to a lot of media executives. It appears as those CBS took advantage of that. One of their reporters arrived in Tripoli - the capital that is still held by Gadhafi.

Ben Plesser offered what appears to be the first video by an American TV journalist from Tripoli. But he acknowledged on the air that he was being sort of monitored and corralled by official minders at all time.

In the meantime, a lot of news outlets have had to rely on reports from neighboring countries - from Egypt to the east, from Tunisia to the west. Even experienced reporters, like those for the Los Angeles Times - it's a dangerous place. As the BBC's foreign editor pointed out recently, Libya, if you think about, is mostly barren desert. It's not an area that's easy to slip into in a clandestine way.

HANSEN: So, how are the Western news organizations compensating to fill in the gaps in the knowledge of the story?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, they're pulling in from myriad sources. Just a few days ago, our own Michele Norris interviewed on the air a businessman from a town about 25 miles west of Tripoli - a town called Zawiya - and he described for her what it was like for him to be in the middle of a square amid protests against the Gadhafi regime. And during the interview, you could hear live rounds of ammunition going off in the background, what perhaps sounded like shelling occurring against actual Libyan citizens.

You know, Michele was getting a firsthand report. She had to acknowledge this was something we couldn't verify on our own, but as long as people were acknowledging what they could and could not confirm on their own, as long as journalists were careful to do that, their ability to obtain some of these firsthand reports were very, very valuable indeed.

HANSEN: NPR's David Folkenflik in our New York bureau. David, thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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