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Alfred Hermida: On Libya, Gaddafi and the social media revolution


Following events which triggered the start of the Arab Spring in Libya, I sat down with Alfred Hermida, former BBC correspondent in North Africa and the Middle East. He is one of few Western journalists to have interviewed former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi during his 42 years in power. 

Originally published on artsWIRE
February 23, 2011

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Alfred Hermida: On Libya, Gaddafi and the social media revolution


Following events which triggered the start of the Arab Spring in Libya, I sat down with Alfred Hermida, former BBC correspondent in North Africa and the Middle East. He is one of few Western journalists to have interviewed former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi during his 42 years in power. 

Originally published on artsWIRE
February 23, 2011

As the winds of revolution sweep across North Africa, UBC Graduate School of Journalism professor Alfred Hermida recounts his own experience as a BBC correspondent in North Africa and the Middle East, and talks about his 1995 interview with Muammar Gaddafi, which he describes as “an unusual experience”.

Alfred Hermida leads the integrated journalism program at the Graduate School of Journalism. Prior to joining UBC, he was a founding member of the BBC website and news editor from 1997 to 2001. During his 16 years at the BBC, he has worked in television, radio, and online journalism, covering regional, national, and international news.

During Hermida’s time in North Africa, he spent most of his time in Tunisia and Egypt. As foreign journalists needed government permission to enter Libya, he spent most of his time covering Libyan news from Tunis or Cairo.

Interviewing the Colonel

After the Lockerbie bombings, the UN placed an embargo on Libya in 1992 and prohibited air travel to and from the country. In 1995, Hermida was assigned to interview Gaddafi for a series of three television features on Libya, focusing on relations with the West, the economy, and society.

“What was interesting at that time was that Gaddafi was…frustrated by this UN embargo, and really felt that he was being victimized by the West. You really got the impression that he felt he was being punished for something that had nothing to do with him,” Hermida recounted.

Hermida calls it “one of the most bizarre interviews” he had ever done. They were on-call since the start of the morning, and were told that Gaddafi would call on them at any point for the interview. Around 7 p.m., they were taken to the barracks in Tripoli, where Gaddafi made a grand entrance wearing big platform shoes, “which meant that he was taller than anybody else in the room.”

“But what was bizarre was that he didn’t acknowledge any of the Westerners in the room,” said Hermida. “So while Gaddafi acknowledged the BBC Arabic Service reporter, he never made eye contact or acknowledged my cameraman or me. I would ask him questions, and he would reply and sort of stare into the space around me.”

“When you do interviews you always seek to make eye contact, you want to connect with the person you’re talking to, signal that you’re paying attention, and you pick up all these physical cues. It was almost like I was this disembodied voice asking these questions, and there was no acknowledgement that we existed.”

As Libya has been largely cut off from the West, it has developed its own political system that is very different from anything else in the world. Hermida believes that Gaddafi has created this world for himself, and that his perception of reality is not in line with the rest of the world.

“We’re talking about the economic embargo, we’re talking about Lockerbie, and we’re talking about relations with the West. It was almost like I had one version of reality and history, and his is completely different. They’re two competing universes, and it’s almost like he’s created this world within himself and within Libya that is out of step with what is happening beyond its borders.”

Hermida believes that Gaddafi’s reaction to the current protests reflects this disjoint in perception.

“He was talking about the protesters as “cockroaches” or “rats” and saying that they’d been drugged and that was why they were protesting. This is not the way a political leader should be speaking, and it almost doesn’t make any sense to people outside Libya,” said Hermida.

From social media to revolution

However, this detachment from the rest of the world may be changing with the growing prevalence of social media, which provides an avenue for the dissemination of information. In countries where there is no freedom of the press and where media has traditionally been completely government-sanctioned, Hermida sees the rise of social media as a powerful game-changer for many authoritarian regimes.

“The ability for people themselves to say ‘This is what is happening in my town, here’s a protest, here are pictures of it,’ and having people in another part of the country see that is happening – that is monumental,” said Hermida.

“People saw what happened in Tunisia and thought, ‘If the Tunisians can overthrow an authoritarian ruler that’s been in power since 1987 in what was effectively a police state, we can do it here.’ And I think that spread of information has tremendous power.”

As Hermida himself was expelled from Tunisia under Ben Ali’s government for writing about human rights abuses and opposition politicians who were contesting the president’s legitimacy, he is fascinated by the generation gap that has emerged since.

“We have a generation of leaders that came to power at a particular time and place in the development of the Arab world, and a very young population which is more urbanized, more middle-class, better educated. As society has evolved and changed, the power structures haven’t.”

This, Hermida believes, has brought events to a cusp. He is also astounded by the extent of the protests and the courage of the protesters.

“These are countries where there have been authoritarian regimes, which are effectively police states, where people have been in fear of their lives for saying the wrong thing. In that kind of environment, for people to step out and say ‘we’re going to stand for something, we’re not going to stand for this any longer’ – that takes a remarkable amount of bravery.”

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Photo: Megalomania by Sebastià Giralt