In Libyan Capital, Reporters Encounter The Surreal

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Foreign journalists covering events in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, are facing increased government pressure. State television regularly denounces Western media coverage of the conflict, and there are billboards around the city condemning news organizations by name. The situation for the media in the Libyan capital has become ever more sinister and weird.

Events are never scheduled in advance. The only warning journalists normally get is a trilling over the speaker system in the Tripoli hotel where almost all of the Western media are based.

Sometimes it's a magical mystery bus tour that can take you to something as simple as a gas station or as frightening as a town five hours away that may be under aerial bombardment — as happened to journalists who went to Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte this week.

The expression "No matter where you go, there you are" perfectly encapsulates the experience.

At the end of every ride, there is a supposedly spontaneous pro-Gadhafi demonstration, where men and women wearing green chant and hold up pictures of the "Brother Leader."

Back in Tripoli, news conferences can happen at any time, day or night. For a while, between 1 and 3 a.m. was a particular favorite of the regime.

It's a tactic seemingly designed to exhaust the reporters, more suited to a detention facility, which this kind of is — a plush, expensive one. But the journalists in Tripoli are here completely at the whim and mercy of the regime.

Guest speakers are brought in to harangue the media, and their comments are filmed and often put on state television.

On Tuesday, a French "fact-finding" delegation comprising several doddering leftists and a stand-up comedian were given the podium. Journalists were referred to variously as the Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels, or, by one Frenchwoman, as the stooges of our Western governments.

"You depend on people who pay you in order to destroy this country, to destroy its sovereignty, its spirit, its morale," she said. "And that is not bearable."

That same day at dinner, two women carrying pictures of Gadhafi entered the dining room and shouted at French journalists, calling them dogs while they were eating.

It's a kind of relentless psychological warfare that can seem absurdly funny at times. But journalists are worried that the incitement could lead to violence.

"I sometimes feel we are living in a kind of Graham Greene novel here, you know," says Don Macintyre, a longtime foreign correspondent for the Independent newspaper. "There is a sense both of menace and fantasy that is pretty disorienting, frankly."

Macintyre says journalists are constantly surrounded by dozens of government minders, so it's almost impossible to talk to people freely. Going out alone puts not only reporters in danger — many have been detained and some abused — but also those they speak to. So, most of the day is spent in the government-sponsored bubble.

"There is something very surreal about sitting in Tripoli and hearing people talking about things that we actually know to be untrue, but having no access to the outside world," he says. "That is a very surreal experience."

The master of ceremonies here is government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim, an urbane man with slicked-back hair. When asked why he brought the French group to harangue the media at the hotel, he answered: "I thought it would be fun to meet them. Why not?

"And then, you know, they denounced you. It's not my position. It's not my position. I'm your friend."

Despite the assurances, the distrust here on the part of some journalists has slipped into genuine fear.

Miles Amoore of the Sunday Times of London only eats uncooked food at mealtimes.

"I eat salad every day," he says. "It could be that I'm overly paranoid about this, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the food here is being spiked with some kind of sedative.

"And there have actually been other journalists who have been taking samples of the food to take back with them to England to get them tested. It's not just me. I might be mad, but I'm not alone in my madness."

The journalists sitting at the table with him laugh, but it's a nervous kind of laughter.

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