Analysis: Misrata's rebels change tactics in dealing with press

THE change in atmosphere among Misrata's rebel leaders came out of nowhere: one minute they were falling over themselves to facilitate trips to the front line, give details on casualties and personal pleas to Nato to hit Gaddafi forces' rocket sites which continue battering this city. The next, it all changed.

The first thing to go was the internet - one minute the foreign press had a free high-speed line to transmit all the horror and hope from this besieged coastal city; the next, it was cut.

Then came the restrictions. Western journalists have been told we need an official minder to accompany us wherever we go and if we want a translator, they must first be vetted by this self-appointed city council.

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Press passes from the rebel government, the National Transitional Council in Benghazi - now recognised by a number of outside states as the government of Libya - are no longer valid, as far as Misrata's own leaders are concerned. Instead, journalists must re-apply - and those failing to pass muster will be out.

Front line areas are now out of bounds, though the regime says it will soon organise a guided bus trip to the battlefields.

Misrata Media Centre official Mustafa Abdulrahman told me the conditions are necessary to make sure journalists report only what will help the city.

"We have rules. Journalists must not go anywhere until we know where they are going. We're at war. Things are not going here as we wish."

This is true. Having liberated their city, rebel fighters have been unable to push forwards; front lines remain stagnant and Nato is seemingly unwilling to blast a path for the rebels to push on to Tripoli. Casualty lists continue to grow after a series of disastrous attacks and government rocketing has returned to the city itself, setting teeth on edge.

Adding to the frustration is the lack of cash: Promises of western aid have not materialised, at least in Misrata, and state employees - including teachers and doctors - have gone unpaid for five months.

Officials insist the rules are to help, not hinder, journalists. The front line is dangerous, hence the ban on access. Approved translators and minders are necessary because of the risk of a "fifth column" of pro-Gaddafi forces hiding in the city. And the internet was cut because the media centre need it for other purposes. "We are protecting you," said Mr Abdulrahman. "I will protect my country. I will look after my country."

The chief of Misrata's press centre, Mohammed Durat, explained that the new rules are necessary to make sure all journalists are legitimate: "We are not afraid of spies from CIA, we are afraid of spies from Gaddafi. We want to care about your safety, you should be happy about this."What is jarring is the difference between Misrata officialdom and the rest of the city, where soldiers, doctors and the population in general continues its spirit of co-operation: the main hotel used by the press is free, and no journalist can stand on a street corner without someone offering them a lift.

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Putting your finger on the reason for this change of mood is hard, not least because the city as a whole remains in thrall to the promise journalists seem to offer for the future.

Officials, on the other hand, are grappling with the messy reality of a war that is jammed in stalemate, and the creeping fear that Nato may call for a ceasefire that leaves Gaddafi in power as an alternative to months more bombing.

So perhaps the city officials simply have to take it out on somebody, and perhaps the press are an easy target. Whether this new attitude will help the rebel government's emissaries as they tour western capitals asking for cash while promising democracy is another question.

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