Thursday, October 20, 2011

Qaddafi's death from an Egyptian newsroom

At a press conference today, the British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, here to talk about elections and media and all sorts of other things, stood in front of journalists and awkwardly tried to comment on Qaddafi's capture, which at that point was still unverified. It was news to all of us too. Unaware that Qaddafi had been killed, Clegg told the reporters,"We believe they should be responsible for their crimes inflicted on Libyan people." One journalist began to clap, and when nobody joined him, he stopped. 

I took a taxi back to the Daily News Egypt office. When I arrived, the TV, which usually sits silent, glowed with horrific images. The circle of editors (nearly all of whom are women here) sat at their computers, half-working and half-watching as Al Jazeera projected the footage, which "proved" Qaddafi is really dead. Not everyone was so sure yet. On Twitter, American journalist Kristen Chick wrote "This new picture of Qaddafi is very recognizable as him." Hadeel al-Shalchi, an Egyptian, tweeted "Very graphic video…of someone who looks VERY like Gadhafi being beaten and dragged in the street." "Seriously, how crazy is this?," wrote Blake Hounshell, Managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, "Gaddafi was found in a sewer waving around a golden gun."

"Oh my god this is disgusting," one editor said. "And they keep repeating it," said another, as her face soured.

The image was stuck on Al Jazeera like a perverted screensaver. Qaddafi's grainy, bloodied, washed-out face laying on the ground, eyes rolled back, hair a wild mess. A shaky, pixilated video jumps between white, grey, blue, khaki, the jeans and skin of men surrounding him. And then, red, the deep dark stain of blood covering Qaddafi’s shirt as he slumps back, very clearly dead.

"I want to see what BBC is showing," one said. We found BBC Arabic from the endless list of satellite channels. They were cutting between expert commentary and mundane footage of a couple of soldiers standing on a street. It was not clear they saw the camera, until the group began to grow. One of the soldiers produced a Libyan flag, and they began to unfold it. Stretching it out, they bounced it up and down, one soldier holding each corner, and then holding it up around what looked, oddly, like a trophy. On CNN, more celebrations were shown. They didn’t show the bloody image.

Moving back from CNN to Al Jazeera, the TV lingered on Nile TV International, a State-owned station. They were reporting news of a Football victory in England. Everyone in the office laughed.

The editors, now less squeamish, debated which screen grab of Qaddafi’s corpse to run in their paper. Theories started to proliferate in the room. In Agence Free Presse footage, Qaddafi is clearly dead, but in Al Jazeera footage, he is being dragged, his state of consciousness not as obvious. “Was Qaddafi knocked out (Jazeera footage) and then killed (bloodied AFP pic)?” tweeted Sarah, sitting next to me. “Or was he killed (bloodied AFP pic) and then body cleaned up and clothes removed (for Jazeera footage)?”

It was a macabre debate, which probably was going on simultaneously around the world among those who deal day to day with how you can possibly know, even when you’re looking at evidence, that something has really happened.

And in Syria, State TV is denying Qaddafi was killed.

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