Blair's swansong In Africa exposes press hypocrisy

Richard Keeble

Interesting to see how Britain's national Fleet Street press coverage of dictators always shifts when they move from being our  'enemies' to  'friends' (or vice versa).

Remember how Saddam Hussein, former President of Iraq, was fêted during the 1980s in Fleet Street  — just as the West backed his country in its war with Iran  — but then was suddenly transformed into a global monster in 1990, particularly following the invasion of Kuwait in August of that year.

Now as out-going PM, Tony Blair stages a controversial glory tour of Africa shaking the fists of the assembled big-wigs in Libya and Sierra Leone, the appalling human rights abuses (both past and present) in these countries are suddenly marginalised in Fleet Street.

Let's take as an example President Mu'ammar al-Gaddafi, of Libya. He was demonised as a  'mad dog' by President Reagan for daring to challenge the United States in the 1970s and  '80s. Gaddafi's expansionist ambitions in Chad, lying to the south of Libya and with substantial oil reserves, were of particular concern to Washington, Paris and London. Thus the eleven-and-a-half minute attack by US jets on 14 April 1986 on Tripoli and Benghazi represented a deliberate attempt to assassinate the head of a foreign state. The first bomb to drop fell on Gaddafi's home. Hana, his adopted daughter aged 15 months, was killed; his eight other children and wife Safiya were all put in hospital, some with serious injuries. The president escaped.

Reports of US military action against Libya disappeared from the media after the 1986 assault. But away from the glare of publicity, the CIA launched its most extensive effort yet to spark an anti-Gaddafi coup. A secret army was recruited from among the many Libyans captured in border battles with Chad during the 1980s. And as concerns grew in M16 that Gaddafi was aiming to develop chemical weapons, Britain funded various opposition groups in Libya.

In 1996, as former intelligence official David Shayler revealed, an MI6 plot was hatched to assassinate Gaddafi in a car bomb attack. It failed. Significantly, at his trial in November 2003 for leaking  'official secrets', Shayler was denied the right (under the European Convention of Human Rights) to speak out about the 1996 anti-Gaddafi plot. Since it is obvious there are a lot of shady secrets from the years of the dirty, anti-Gaddafi war to conceal, such a decision by the court must have come as a relief to the government.

Recently, relations between the US, UK and Libya have thawed, with Gaddafi pledging support for the  "war against terrorism" and agreeing to pay compensation to the victims of the 1988 Flight 103 Lockerbie bombing, for which a Libyan intelligence agent was jailed. And thus, as Blair flits around Africa meeting his new-found friends, no mention of the appalling attempts at  "regime change" in Libya in 1986 and 1996 appears in Fleet Street's coverage.

Also missing from the coverage are reports of the appalling human rights abuses in Libya. Remember Robin Cook's much heralded  "ethical foreign policy" in which concerns for human rights were supposedly prioritised? The policy is clearly dead and buried. According to Amnesty International (AI), while acknowledging a few recent human rights improvements in Libya, the overall situation remains bleak. AI's newly published annual report comments:  "Law enforcement officials resorted to excessive use of force, killing at least 12 demonstrators while breaking up a protest and one detainee during a prison disturbance."

It continues:  "Freedom of expression and association remained severely restricted. Several Libyans suspected of political activism abroad were arrested or otherwise intimidated when they returned to the country. Five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor were sentenced to death by firing squad for a second time. There were continuing concerns about the treatment of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. No progress was made towards establishing the fate or whereabouts of victims of enforced disappearances in previous years."

Similarly Human Rights Watch comments on Libya:  "The government still restricts freedom of expression and bans political parties and independent organisations. It continues to imprison individuals for criticising Libya's political system, the government, or its leader. Due process violations and torture remain concerns as do disappearances unresolved from past years."

Yet there is little mention of this in Fleet Street. Reporters were more concerned to hail oil giant BP's return to Libya  — with the company granted the right to explore for gas in a deal worth $900m ( £450m)  — and Gaddafi's decision to buy British missiles and air defence systems in a new military co-operation agreement.
Then in Sierra Leone, Blair was pictured smiling again as he was  'made an honorary chief by a grateful African nation', as the Guardian reported. Britain's military intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 is universally applauded on Fleet Street as helping to bring peace to a war-ravaged country. The Guardian continued:  "The British intervention is seen as both a decisive moment in the restoration of democracy in Sierra Leone and the high water mark of Tony Blair's interventionist foreign policy."

Likewise, the Independent reported on May 31:  "For Britain, the Sierra Leone intervention was a demonstration of that now long-forgotten concept, the ethical foreign policy. It was also the fulfilment of a Blairite African fantasy, born out of his father Leo's memories of visiting Fourah Bay College several times in 1960 to lecture in law and mark papers. On a previous visit to Lungi on 10 February 2002, he recalled:  'My father always told me what friendly people the Sierra Leoneans are.' Yesterday, he again recalled his father, but also elevated Britain's role in Sierra Leone to the rank of an example for others to follow."

Mark Curtis, in his book Unpeople: Britain's Secret Human Rights Abuses (Vintage, 2004) seriously challenges the official story on Sierra Leone. He suggests that the unilateral intervention (ignoring the UN) in May 2000 was undertaken more as an attempt to demonstrate Britain's  "great power status" and influence in West Africa than out of any concern for human rights. As Curtis comments:  "If Britain had been serious about human rights, perhaps it might not have exported 7,500 rifles to Sierra Leone as part of a  £10 million package in 1999.

The country was already awash with weapons, whose availability contributed to the phenomenon of child soldiers. If Britain were serious about human rights now, perhaps it would try to weed out from, rather than absorb into, the reconstituted army it is currently training those past human rights abusers." The current reports by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Sierra Leone are damning. HRW comments:  "Since the end of Sierra Leone's brutal armed conflict in 2002, few improvements have been made in the dynamics that contributed to the emergence of the conflict in 1991  — rampant corruption, gross financial mismanagement, inadequate distribution of the country's natural resources and weak rule of law.  "

AI is equally bleak: there has been little progress in strengthening the justice system or in reforming laws that discriminate against women. Several suspected political opponents were recently arrested and tried. Sierra Leone remained one of the poorest countries in the world with 70 per cent of the population living on less than US$1 a day and high illiteracy rates. Rates of mortality and disease were at crisis levels due to the inadequate health infrastructure.

A report in The Times by Africa correspondent Jonathan Clayton highlighted these appalling statistics but added:  "Nevertheless, the country is at peace and, though corruption is endemic, there are signs of a mini economic boom." In contrast, and more realistically, HRW comments:  "The government's failure to address crushing poverty despite massive international aid and alarmingly high unemployment rates among youth, render Sierra Leone vulnerable to future instability."

 • Richard Lance Keeble is Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln. His two latest co-edited books Communicating War: Memory, Media and Military (Abramis) and The Journalistic Imagination: Literary Journalists from Defoe to Capote and Carter (Routledge) are to be published shortly.