A crowd of hundreds, many wearing green to show their support for Muammar Gaddafi, gathered in Tripoli on March 20 for a mass funeral. They were burying dozens of civilians - some of them children - killed overnight in NATO airstrikes.
Or so they were told. Among the thousands of wiretapped conversations obtained by Al Jazeera are several which show this “funeral” was actually a bit of stage-managed propaganda, organized by Tayeb El Safi, one of Gaddafi’s most trusted henchmen.
The day before the funeral, El Safi and an unknown caller can be heard joking about a NATO airstrike which destroyed an office used by Gaddafi’s aides.
El Safi: They hit our location [laughter].
Caller: The office?
El Safi: Yes, the office. The office where we used to meet, the High Commission for Children.
Caller: No! [laughter] When?
El Safi: We need to put children there and take the media there in the evening. Tomorrow, let’s organize a huge funeral in Green Square [Martyrs’ Square]. We need to get some coffins. From here and there, you know what I mean. We need revolutionary youth with green flags and pictures of the leader.
El Safi and his aides moved ahead with the plan, but they encountered a problem: The cemetery they planned to use couldn't accommodate the huge number of "martyrs" the government planned to bury.
Caller: The cemetery of Al Hani only has three available places.
El Safi: Okay, move them to Al Hansheer [cemetery]. Get ready, I'll tell you now.
Caller: How many?
El Safi: 48 martyrs.
Witnesses would recall later that the funeral did seem a bit odd - that no family members showed up to mourn their dead relatives. “We didn’t know who they were. There were no death certificates. There were no relatives who later came for them,” Faraj Al Ghyriani, a Tripoli resident who attended the funeral, told Al Jazeera. “I know that inside the coffins were just people who died of old age, or mercenaries. They were so stupid that they had the same name on two different coffins.”
'Print a copy tonight'
The civil war in Libya was as much a public relations battle as a military conflict. The rebels needed to convince a sceptical West that they were outgunned, facing bloody reprisals from the Libyan army. Gaddafi, for his part, at first tried to downplay the uprising. When that failed - when its scope became undeniable - he shifted gears, trying to convince the world that NATO's bombing campaign was killing civilians instead of protecting them.
The recordings reveal a Libyan government obsessed with manicuring its image, even as protests spread across the country. In the earliest days of the uprising, protesters tore down a poster of Gaddafi in Benghazi. El Safi, who presumably had bigger things to worry about, called an informant and demanded that he reprint the poster.
Caller: I just want to tell you that everything is okay except for the picture of the leader.
El Safi: Print a copy tonight. Call Anwar Al Shweihdi to do it tonight.
Caller: I don't know if I can find him tonight.
El Safi: You can find him.
Caller: Okay, I'll try to find him.
El Safi: Anwar Al Shweihdi.
Anwar's son Ali took the call, and decided to defy the Libyan leadership. "I just ripped off the cables from my computer so it wouldn't work," he told Al Jazeera last month. "Three people came to me and said, 'we need a picture of the leader.' I told them that my machine was broken."
The government’s propaganda efforts grew more focused as the war dragged on. A Turkish hospital ship sailed into Misrata in early April to ferry hundreds of wounded people out of the besieged city. Shortly after it left, NATO jets bombed the city, striking Libyan military targets.
Gaddafi and his prime minister, Al-Baghdadi Al-Mahmoudi, saw this as an opportunity to pressure the Turkish government.
Gaddafi: Yesterday, the planes that struck civilians and our military in Misrata were Turkish planes. Tell them that.
Al-Mahmoudi: We increased the number of dead. Our people said 11, but I will tell them it's about 100.
Gaddafi: Tell them tens of civilians killed.
Al-Mahmoudi did exactly that a half-hour later, in a conversation with Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu. “There was a severe airstrike by coalition planes as soon as the ship left,” he said. “Tens of civilians and soldiers were killed.”
The recordings also include a revealing exchange between El Safi and Ramadan El Breiki, the Libyan information minister. The two men were discussing Areesh Said, an outspoken television journalist who was arrested by Gaddafi's forces in Ajdabiya. He was threatened with rape, he said, and then forced to appear on state television. "There were three things I had to say," he told Al Jazeera. "That Saif [al-Islam Gaddafi] treated me well, that Tripoli is safe, and that there are no mercenaries."
El Breiki would later gloat to El Safi about how relaxed he made the journalist seem:
El Breiki: Did you see the interview with Areesh?
El Safi: Who?
El Breiki: Areesh, Areesh.
El Safi:No, I did not.
El Breiki: We aired it at 9pm. We made a good programme with special editing. We practiced what he should say. We will rerun it many times. I made sure that the guy seemed unafraid and convinced about what he was saying.
El Safi: That's good.
Source: Al Jazeera