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Reporting on conflict is always risky. Access and movement are often limited and many war correspondents find themselves far from the action, stuck in hotels and “safe zones.” Sky News reporter Mark Stone managed to report a story that contradicted official reports about civilians and imams killed in a NATO airstrike in Libya—all without leaving his hotel room.
- Uri Friedman Staff writer for The Atlantic Wire.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, it's Food Wednesday. Jose Andres was named outstanding chef at this year's James Beard Awards. He'll be joining us in studio to discuss his latest projects, including a pop-up restaurant celebrating American food.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, reporting from warzones brings its own particular challenges for journalists. Some have their reporting curtailed because of safety concerns that keep them holed up in hotels and in safe zones, or they might be restricted at the whim of foreign governments who wish to control the information that gets out. Both were the case for a reporter from the British satellite TV broadcaster Sky News.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe journalist pieced together reporting that debunked a story on Libyan state television about a NATO airstrike that supposedly killed civilians and imams, and he did it without ever leaving his hotel room in Tripoli. Joining us to discuss the airstrike and the technology used to report on it is Uri Friedman. He is a staff writer for The Atlantic Wire. He joins us by telephone. Uri Friedman, thank you for joining us.
MR. URI FRIEDMANHi, Kojo. Good to be with you.
NNAMDII should say that Sky News is a satellite television news channel based in the U.K. Uri, a NATO airstrike reportedly hit a guesthouse in the eastern town of Brega. What was the official storyline given on Libyan state television?
FRIEDMANSure. So the official storyline was that many civilians had been killed in the airstrike, and this is, in fact, what Sky News' Mark Stone, the reporter, learned when he got a call from his editor in London, telling him about the report on Libyan state television. Essentially, when he called Mussa Ibrahim, who's a spokesperson for the Libyan government...
NNAMDIWho happened to be staying in the same hotel with him.
FRIEDMANThat's right. He's a fellow hotel guest. He speaks to the media a lot, and the proximity helps. So he called his fellow hotel guest, Mussa Ibrahim, and Ibrahim said that among the civilians who had been killed in this airstrike were several religious leaders, imams who had been conducting a ceremony the night before in a -- near a guesthouse in Brega, and that they then retired to the guesthouse and had been -- and several of them had been killed in the airstrike.
NNAMDIAllow me to read the regime's official account to Sky News. Mussa Ibrahim, a spokesman for Colonel Gadhafi's government, told Sky News that religious leaders were among the dead. Quoting here, "this is the most horrendous, terrible attack so far. Last night, Libyan TV were broadcasting live from a religious gathering over a -- of over 100 people in Brega town. After the gathering, the religious leaders and civilians left and stayed in the guesthouse in Brega. NATO attacked the guesthouse at dawn today."
NNAMDIWell, Mark Stone, the Sky News reporter, as we mentioned earlier, was based at a hotel in Tripoli. Why? Why was he reluctant to report from Brega itself when this news broke?
FRIEDMANWell, media access to Brega is very restricted right now. Really, there's a whole cohort of foreign journalists in Tripoli, in the capital of Libya, and they're there actually at the invitation of Gadhafi's government. They've been there for several -- more than a month now, and the journalists who are based there often only venture outside of the Rixos Hotel, where many of them are staying, with government companions or government translators who Stone actually refers to as really more like government minders, but they're people who kind of take them around often if there's an assault on Gadhafi's compound, for example.
FRIEDMANAnd NATO thought they will take them there to survey the damage, or they'll have them speak to pro-Gadhafi supporters or others in Tripoli, but they're always accompanied by someone from the government. And in Brega, there's really no media access. In Benghazi, in the rebel stronghold in the east, journalists are able to move about with a little less -- with fewer restrictions, but in Tripoli, that's not the case.
NNAMDINow, the reporter in this case, Mark Stone, was skeptical about the storyline that he was given by the spokesperson for the Libyan government, Mussa Ibrahim. Why was he skeptical?
FRIEDMANHe's skeptical for a few reasons. One is Brega has been a place of heavy fighting during the conflict in Libya, and he was curious about why there would be religious leaders conducting a ceremony there when many civilians had already fled the town. What's more, soon after he filed that report that you quoted, he talked to a NATO source who told him that what the assault had actually hit was not a guesthouse but rather a command-and-control structure being used by the Gadhafi regime to target civilians.
NNAMDISo he was told that by the NATO source. Now, he's got to set out to try to find out exactly what the truth is, and it's been dubbed hotel room journalism. How did the Sky News reporter put the story together without ever leaving his hotel room?
FRIEDMANRight. He's calling it hotel room journalism, and others on Twitter are calling it really a prime example of 21st-century reporting. The reporting that is enabled by Internet technologies. So essentially, this is what he did. He published his story, including the part about the NATO source, and suddenly, his Twitter feed started lighting up. And he was getting a lot of tweets from people who followed him within Libya, who were saying something vague about a bunker being in Brega, but he wasn't finding out a ton about it.
FRIEDMANOne tweet, however, mentioned something about a Dutch construction company being part involved somehow with this bunker. So that's when Stone turns to Google, which we're all familiar with, and he Googled Brega bunker Dutch. You know, three words, hoping he'd find something, and what he landed on was an interview way back in 19 -- in the '80s with a Dutch engineer who basically explained, gave the exact coordinates of a bunker in Brega that he had helped build, and he actually was able to translate this article from the Dutch to the English with the help of his Twitter followers.
NNAMDISo he actually got the coordinates of the military bunker...
NNAMDI...and compared them with those of the guesthouse. Where did he get the coordinates of the guesthouse?
NNAMDISo he found out that from -- once he found -- once he translated the interview, he then turned back to the Libyan government spokesman, Mussa Ibrahim, and he asked him for the coordinates of the guesthouse. And Ibrahim readily complied. He actually sent out a slip of paper to journalists on Saturday morning, the day after the initial report, with the exact coordinates. And so now, he had both sets of coordinates.
NNAMDIAnd when he had both sets of coordinate, both for the bunker and the guesthouse, what did he discover?
FRIEDMANSo there's more technology available. So what he did then is he had an iPhone. He gets together with his cameraman, still at the Rixos Hotel, of course, and he plugs in both coordinates. What he finds is pins land, as you often see with Google Earth or -- which is what he used for this, pins landed right next to each other. So essentially, the coordinates wind up very close to one another on Google Earth, and he -- once he -- but he -- there was another kind of unknown here, which was he found this interview in 1988, but was he right about these coordinates? He wasn't sure.
FRIEDMANSo what he did then is that he went on Skype, and with the help of his -- with the help of Twitter, he actually found the contact information for the Dutch engineer who had been interviewed, and he did a video chat with the Dutch engineer on Skype who confirmed the coordinates that he had given in his interview and gave some more information, including that the bunker he built was kind of a communications hub for Gadhafi that he could use in the event of an attack. It had a TV studio, a radio studio, and it was a way for Gadhafi in an event of attack to kind of broadcast to his country that he was okay and to communicate with the nation.
NNAMDISo technically, while the NATO source says it was a command-and-control structure being used to target civilians, it may not have been that, but it was a Gadhafi government communications structure used to communicate with people, and it was sitting right next door to the guesthouse where the imams allegedly stayed.
FRIEDMANExactly. What the Dutch engineer explained is that there, he had built an underground bunker, and above the bunker was a guesthouse, and there was another guesthouse alongside. So they were right next to each other. Yes.
NNAMDIAnd that's how technology and social media helped to find out exactly what was happening on the ground. Foreign correspondents in Libya using technology and social media a lot?
FRIEDMANYes, they are. I think, you know, it's been used -- Twitter has certainly become a big reporting source, and in fact, we are often, you know, as -- we at The Atlantic Wire often follow Twitter feeds of people like C.J. Chivers of The New York Times or Mark Stone to find out information. And they're using it as well to interact with sources within Libya as well. So it's become a major tool, especially as Stone explains in his report. He was able to really use all the technologies at his disposal to really dig deep on a story and compare NATO and Libyan government accounts. And I think a lot of journalists in the country are realizing that now.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that Stone has also been using a webcam to report from the hotel where most of the journalists are based. What could there possibly be to report from a five-star hotel in Tripoli?
FRIEDMANWell, it turns out there's a lot. First of all, you know, there are a lot of journalists there, so there's often information going back and forth very rapidly, as well -- we actually wrote another story about Mark Stone who caught our attention a few days before that, where if you remember there were a lot of reports about whether Gadhafi rumors, really speculation about whether Gadhafi had been killed. And soon after that, he appeared on Libyan state television, meeting with tribal leaders, and in what appeared to be the Rixos Hotel.
FRIEDMANSome people kind of said, you know, this was a prerecorded video. This doesn't indicate anything, but Stone actually went around with a camera and explained one theory that he heard floated, which was that Gadhafi was actually not -- with Ibrahim, his hotel guest, that Gadhafi was actually staying unbeknownst to most journalists at the hotel. This was just one theory that he floated out there, but he kind of walked around the Rixos Hotel, which is a five-star, a beautiful hotel, walked around, explaining his theory as well. So he's been doing a lot of reporting within the confines of the Rixos.
NNAMDIAnd you've been reporting on what he's been reporting.
NNAMDIUri Friedman is a staff writer for The Atlantic Wire. Thank you so much for joining us.
FRIEDMANThank you for having me.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. And when we come back, it's Food Wednesday. We have chef Jose Andres. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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