Media lexicon can promote Islamists’ agenda in Libyan war

Suddenly the Libyan National Army can become a militia and vice versa.
Wednesday 20/05/2020
A member of Libya’s GNA holds at Al-Watiya airbase, southwest of Tripoli, May 18. (REUTERS)
Militiaman-turned Army soldier. A member of Libya’s GNA holds at Al-Watiya airbase, southwest of Tripoli, May 18. (REUTERS)

TUNIS--Islamists and their allies are aware of the important role media plays in the war in Libya.

To them, amplifying or even fabricating information that helps their side is a key tactic, but it apparently has not been enough to influence local and international opinion.

Desperate to reshape the narrative, they have begun to manipulate terms — calling the Libyan National Army (LNA) a “militia” and its commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a “warlord.” They have accused the latter of “attempting to launch a coup,” while referring to actual militias in Tripoli and Misrata that are fighting alongside Syrian mercenaries as a “national army.”  Suddenly the Libyan National Army can become a militia and vice versa.

Media outlets affiliated with Qatar and Turkey are among those who have begun changing terms that have long been used to describe militias supporting the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). Previously referring to them as “forces loyal to the Tripoli-based GNA,” they are now calling them the “Libyan Army,” a semantic tour de force that has prompted confusion and mockery.

Islamist forces depend on Syrian mercenaries and volunteers from cities like Misrata to function, putting them under the standard definition of a militia. Numerous reports say that their fighters do not abide by standard rules of engagement in war and do not even wear uniforms.

On the other hand, leading figures that were expelled from Tripoli in the coup that followed the 2014 elections have managed to rebuild the country’s army and, within six years, deploy fighters in cities like Benghazi and in countries like Jordan and Egypt, under the slogan “one hand builds and another fights terrorism.”

One reason pro-Islamist media are pushing for a different terminology is their frustration with the recognition Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is getting in media outlets.

Haftar’s use of the term “Libyan National Army” (LNA) since 2014 has angered Islamists, who have tried to disparage his forces as “Haftar’s tribal militias.”

Local and Arab media supporting the GNA first referred to Haftar’s army as “the forces of the retired General Khalifa Haftar.” Recently, they have begun referring to the LNA as “the militias serving the warlord Khalifa Haftar” and the “rebel forces in Libya.”

The change in words is calculated. Using the term “army” grants Haftar legitimacy to defend his homeland and uphold its stability. By contrast, the same word implicitly paints the Islamist forces fighting him as militias or terrorist groups.

Media outlets in the West generally refer to Haftar’s forces as “Libya’s eastern-based forces” or use the term “national army” with quotation marks, trying to appear neutral and show no bias in favour of Islamists.

Media outlets that support Islamists, whether Arab or Western, bet that the average viewer will not notice their strategy or take time to verify the accuracy of the terms used.

Even some respected international media outlets have failed to use accurate terminology in describing the war. The BBC revealed its true feelings about the LNA and its commander by referring to Haftar as “the Libyan warlord” even while attempting to appear neutral in referring to the LNA as “Libya’s eastern-based forces.”

Some justify the media outlet’s description of the Tripoli-based government as the “Government of National Accord,” saying it is using language that has been adopted by the international community. But its lack of commitment to the term “Libyan National Army” that has also been recognised by the UN Security Council betrays its bias in the matter.

The inconsistent use of such terms by the BBC and other international news organisations and their focus on portraying the conflict as one between eastern and western parts of Libya, rather than between ordinary Libyans and Islamist forces, only serves the Islamists’ agenda.