The Gaddafi-in-Zimbabwe hoax

Aug 23, 2011

On August 22 there came the stunning, unexpected news that Tripoli had suddenly fallen to Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi's western-backed foes. The rebels who a few weeks ago had been said to have suffered serious setbacks had somehow brilliantly recouped. Among their reported highly symbolic Tripoli victories were the capture of the important Green Square and the reported arrest of three of Gaddafi's sons.

U.S president Barack Obama, UK prime minister David Cameron and the International Criminal Court were just some of the individuals and institutions who quickly came out to declare the end nigh, or near, and to position themselves for their preferred respective roles in the expected/hoped for Gaddafi aftermath.

The al Jazeera news agency came out with a story titled 'Speculation rife over Gaddafi exit strategy.' On the website the article was three sentences long, accompanied by a video, wondering where Gaddafi was, or where he might be headed to.

As the first word of the heading clearly indicated, it was simply the writer's conjecture; speculation, nothing more. Among the places he guessed Gaddafi might be were 'Angola or Zimbabwe, both close regional allies.'

For a shocking number of Zimbabwean and many other 'news sources,' that little bit of an Al Jazeera writer's clearly admitted speculation was almost proof that Gaddafi was either already in Zimbabwe or definitely headed there. No probing questions were asked about the soundness or otherwise of the speculation. Indeed, the very fact that the article's author had said it was speculation was completely lost. The story very quickly morphed into, "Al Jazeera says/reports Gaddafi is in or headed for Zimbabwe."

These are just some of the fevered, unquestioningly certain headlines this little bit of one person's speculation spawned:

Gaddafi heads for Zimbabwean or Angolan exile (Zimbabwe Metro).

The slightly more circumspect News 24 and a few others had the good sense to leave some room for doubt by posing the speculation as a question: Gaddafi headed for Zimbabwe?

Hundreds of others who did not use it in headlines still used this one Al Jazeera writer's speculation as solid information. This despite the fact that he gave no arguments for his speculation beyond the claim that Angola and Zimbabwe are Gaddafi's 'close regional allies,' itself a claim that could be picked apart if it is to suggest that he is/was closer to these two countries than the many others his country had huge investments in.

On August 23 it became clear that so much of what we have read and continue to read, see and hear about the conflict in Libya from all sides is carefully stage-managed propaganda. Saif al Islam, the most prominent of the Gaddafi sons who was said to be in the rebels' custody just hours before and reportedly headed for trial at the ICC in Brussels, jauntily turned up at a hotel in Tripoli, still vowing to never surrender!

Even if that turns out to be one last short lived and ill-advised attempt at bravado, this stunning new turn threw all the previous day's reports, including the claim of Gaddafi heading for Zimbabwe, into very serious doubt, to put it very mildly. It clearly was a story many of the gulllibe found sexy and convincing, but one that had absolutely no legs to stand on.

But when the Al Jazeera speculation failed to gain any credibility traction (the website's related video became a dead link) then the 'story' developed into 'Gaddafi seen in Zimbabwe on Mugabe's private jet' in the UK Daily Mail, which itself merely sexed up and embellished a 'report' in the UK Sun. Both are virulently, hysterically Mugabephobic newspapers who have over the years not been the least bit embarrassed to write countless Zimbabwe 'exposes' that have been exposed as utter fiction.

But let's not spoil a delicious story of two dictators giving each other succor. Claimed the Daily Mail, 'President Mugabe's political opponents claim their spies saw Gaddafi arrive in the country on a Zimbabwe Air Force jet in the early hours of Wednesday morning. They say the Libyan dictator was taken to a mansion in Harare's Gunninghill suburb, where agents from his all-female bodyguard were apparently seen patrolling the grounds. There's no doubt that Gaddafi is here as a 'unique guest' of Mugabe,' a spokesman for Zimbabwe's opposition Movement for Democratic Change told the Sun.'

Other versions of this report claimed the downtown area of Harare had been 'surrounded' by soldiers.

Where to start?

Mugabe does not have a 'private jet,' personal or government-provided. In any case, the 'private jet' of the Daily Mail's headline had by the very first line of the article changed to 'a Zimbabwe Air Force jet.'

No one who was actually in downtown Harare could see any evidence of the 'surrounding' Zimbabwean soldiers! None of the local press, including that not partial to Mugabe or Gaddafi, could verify Gaddafi's all-female bodyguard' in the suburb of 'Gunninghill,' although that might have simply been because they couldn't find this non-existent place. Perhaps they were referring to Gunhill suburb, but the 'misreporting' of their 'sources' about this detail didn't give an already skeptical reader any more confidence about the rest of the story.

It was all a great mystery, with the sighting of what would have been a very high profile visitor apparently only available to the Mail and the Sun's MDC moles, but neither the press in Harare nor any other citizens!

Interestingly but not at all surprisingly, the Daily Mail's Mugabe-linking Gaddafi headline has since disappeared, the Gaddafi-in-Zimbabwe reference, now clearly known to be untrue, left buried in a substantially reworked story. It apparently has not occurred to the Daily Mail to do a follow up story asking their claimed Harare sources why they misled them so embarrassingly. Could it be because those 'sources' never existed; that the story was a figment of the paper's fertile imagination?     

The gaps and the amateur nature of the Mail and Sun articles, picked up verbatim by many others, suggested an eagerness to believe the tale of two guys once in good books in the West but now considered as Official Bad Guys there, hanging out together. But given how eagerly these papers have been to do the British government's propaganda on Libya from the beginning of the conflict earlier this year, and their gut-level antipathy to Mugabe, infamous dispossesor of British-heritage white farmers, deliberate misinformation is just as likely a reason for the Gaddafi-in-Zimbabwe stories as the likelihood of reporting 'mistakes.'  How do you 'mistake' whether Gaddafi was seen at an airport or his bodyguards in 'Gunninghill,' or they weren't?  

President Robert Mugabe has expressed strong sympathy for fellow strongman Gaddafi, but it is extremely unlikely that Gaddafi would even want to go to Zimbabwe, out of the countries that might be open to hosting him. Mugabe's government would also not be blind to the many negative repercussions of hosting Gaddafi at a politically and economically delicate time in Zimbawe's re-emergence from crisis and isolation.

A good, even minimally, slightly analytical speculative article by Al Jazeera or anyone else would have easily come up with the reasons why Gaddafi's exile in Zimbabwe is more unlikely than likely.

In the last several months there have been other reports about Libya that have turned out to be part of the stunningly foreign-orchestrated regime change agenda of a long-ruling despot who also had a lot of enemies amongst those he ruled. One example that comes to mind is British foreign secretary William Hague's claim in February that Gaddafi was on the run and on his way to or in Venezuela. That too seemed to have been clear propaganda rather than mistaken information prematurely released.

One can't therefore help wondering which category to put the Al Jazeera sentence that caused such a frenzy in the Zimbabwean and other media about Gaddafi supposedly heading to Harare, or the UK Mail/Sun one about him actually being there, despite no one but these papers' 'sources' knowing anything about it!

But far more shocking than the lazy, empty speculation of the Al Jazeera feature and the probably deliberate mischief of the Daily Mail/Sun is the way so many others ignored all basic questioning and caution in rushing to treat them as solid fact! A stunning lesson in how easy it is to rope in the media into one or another agenda to achieve a political goal.


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