In the Hindu, journalist Vladimir Radyuhin has reported ‘massive looting of ancient artefacts underway in Libya’. The Hindu has also republished Radyuhin’s (very slightly reworded) news article as an op-ed (opinion) piece, warning that ‘Libyan cultural heritage [is] in danger of going the Iraqi way’.
Radyuhin’s source was ‘a Russian expert on West Asia’, ‘scholar’, ‘orientalist, writer and film maker’ Nikolai Sologubovsky, who had ‘spent several months [April-July] in Libya this year as a correspondent for a Moscow tabloid’. (Elsewhere, Iranian Press TV journalist Svetlana Tikhomirova credited Nikolay Sologubovsky as a photographer.)
But Radyuhin’s article seems to be churnalism; and the polite word for Sologubovsky’s work would be “lobbying” (while another would be “propaganda”)…
Destroying World Heritage Sites, looting museums
On Russian television, Sologubovsky had said that ‘NATO aircraft have bombed Leptis Magna and Sabratha’ (UNESCO World Heritage Sites). ‘The al-Jamahiriya National Museum in Tripoli has been looted and antiquities are being shipped out by sea to Europe’. ‘Plunder of Libya’s cultural heritage has been going on since February. I’m afraid it faces the same tragic fate as Iraq’s antiquities, which were plundered by the victorious U.S. military.’
Still, under the Hindu article, cultural heritage-blogging Prof. Larry Rothfield has noted that,
If true, this would be terrible news. It is difficult to assess the accuracy of these claims, however. To date, there is no corroboration of the claim that NATO bombed Leptis Magna or Sabratha, and the concluding assertion that Iraq’s antiquities were plundered by U.S. forces is clearly untrue: US forces failed to secure the museum and sites, but the looting was done by Iraqis.
Indeed, a British Ministry of Defence spokesman, Major General Nick Pope, has dismissed the alleged destruction of, or collateral damage to, Libyan archaeological sites as ‘nonsense’: the RAF ‘carried out “precision strikes” on pro-Gaddafi facilities at Sabratah’ and ‘a psychological warfare centre over a mile from Leptis Magna. All four Paveway guided bombs were observed to score direct hits on their proper target’ (first quoted, then paraphrased, then quoted by the AFP).
In addition, art theft-blogging Mark Durney has commented on this blog,
when I last spoke with Dr. Laurie Rush she had mentioned how significant it was that the US Army and NATO collaborated on developing a no strike list of cultural heritage institutions and sites around Libya within 36hrs after the strikes were announced. The stories of looting and heritage destruction sound like nothing more than misinformed journalism, or better yet, propaganda.
So, Sologubovsky’s claims of destruction sound unreliable.
Looting cave paintings
Perhaps revealingly, Sologubovsky had also claimed that ‘looters’ were taking 14,000-year-old cave paintings from the Acacus Mountains. Intriguingly, he described how the looters ‘press silk cloth soaked in [a] special chemical solution against rock frescoes and the paint sticks to the cloth and comes off the cave wall’.
Even if that technique worked, it would only produce a mirror-image stain on the silk cloth.
Yet as CNN journalist Laura Allsop paraphrased Somali archaeologist Dr. Sada Mire (on 5th February 2011), ‘human sweat is enough to damage the delicate [5,000-year-old] rock paintings’ at Dhambalin in Somaliland (an internationally-unrecognised secessionist state in/next to Somalia).
Personally, I find it difficult to believe in either the physical possibility of this looting, or the existence of a market for the stains of dissolved wall paintings as antiquities.
Churnalism of pro-Gaddafi publicists’ “journalism”
In fact, Sologobovsky is the ‘deputy head of a Russian committee of solidarity with the people of Libya and Syria’. And the Press Service of the Russian Committee of Solidarity with the Peoples of Libya and Syria (fn1) lists Sologobovsky not as an expert, a scholar, or a journalist, but as a ‘publicist [publitsist (публицист)]’.
The Russian Committee of Solidarity was set up on 13th May 2011, in order ‘to unite the efforts of the Russian public, advocating the termination of the NATO aggression against Libya and the information war against Syria’ (fn2).
The national conference of all of the tribes of Libya has expressed their full support for the government and the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
We demand that the Russian Government urgently provide full economic and military assistance to Syria, which is under the threat of an economic blockade and military intervention from the same forces that killed civilians in Libya (fn3).
Elsewhere, the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) paraphrased Sologubovsky’s statements as ‘the Reality of Events’: on RT TV (Russia Today), Sologubovsky had acknowledged only ‘burned government departments’ in Hama, and thus implied that (only) the ‘non-democratic’, ‘extremist opposition’ (and its allies) had caused the locals’ ‘nightmare’, not the regime (as well).(fn4)
Churnalism is ‘a news article that is published as journalism, but is essentially a press release without much added’. Radyuhin’s article could be seen as an unfortunate example of that; but Sologobovsky’s statements were not in a press release. Radyuhin listened to and quoted Sologobovsky as an expert, a scholar and a journalist.
Rothfield has refuted Sologubovsky’s claims about Iraq; the British military have denied Sologubovsky’s claims about bombing; Durney has rebutted Sologubovsky’s claims of destruction; and the cave paintings’ delicacy undermines Sologubovsky’s claims of their looting. Sologobovsky’s “journalism” seems to consist of (literally) producing evidence for his pro-Gaddafi lobbying efforts.
Influencing public opinion
Predictably enough, this stuff is now getting reproduced on news websites and blogs, slightly rewritten in community media or excerpted in information portals; abridged and translated in non-English-language news agencies, newspapers and state broadcasters; and reused by pro-Gaddafi organisations, like the Operation Free Libya Facebook group, and the Libya S.O.S. blog.
Also, Sologubovsky’s photographs of destruction are being presented in exhibitions, on television and online as evidence of ‘terrorist organisation’ NATO’s bombing of civilian sites. Another of Sologubovsky’s articles, a Libyan Chronicle, claiming bombing of ‘mosques, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other peace sites’, is being used in the (2,000-member) A Millions Supporting Al Gaddafi Facebook group.
It is influencing public understanding: for example, it is being accepted in social forums and politics forums. Zwergenkönig posted an excerpt under a German newspaper article and asked, ‘I am reading this for the first time, have I perhaps missed something in die Zeit?’
It is also influencing archaeological opinion: for instance, the Archaeology News Network has republished it. (Culture in Development has republished both Libyan Cultural Heritage in Danger of Going the Iraqi Way and Claims of Mass Libyan Looting Rejected by Archaeologists.)
Happily, this blog is also making a slight impression: archaeologists Sarah May and Alun Salt have retweeted it; and art student Bart Heijltjes has posted a link to my rebuttal in an Al Jazeera English (AJE) blog comment.
For German audiences, Rainer Schreg has (albeit very briefly) summarised the conflicting reports addressing claims of NATO bombing of UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites in Libya.
Dorothy King has dismissed the ‘silly Russian claims‘ that ‘NATO bombs have been dropped’ on or near the Al Jamahiriya Museum/National Museum/Archaeological Museum of Tripoli. She cited journalist Luke Harding that ‘friendly rebels… were guarding the building [the Libya Museum] from looters’. (And the Archaeology Matters blog aggregator linked to PhDiva.)
That is reassuring; but as Paul Barford notes, the original article did not claim that the Libya Museum had been bombed.
Barford accepts that Sologubovsky’s article is ‘alarmist‘ but argues that it is ‘worth publicising’ until its inaccuracy is confirmed, because ‘there has been military action around both Sabratha and Leptis and there is money to be made out of antiquities and a time of civil disorder is a time when one can get hands on stuff not normally “available”‘.
While I agree that it is better to be safe than sorry, I’m not sure the way to do that is by uncritically publicising a pro-dictatorial regime, professional publicist’s unproven claims until they are disproven. For instance, Paul Barford’s blog has itself been republished in Tom Elliot’s Maia Atlantis: Ancient World Blogs aggregator.
(I have also written a follow-up post on Libya: Looting Claims Rejected, Propaganda Accusations Not Denied.)
fn1: Komitet Solidarnosti s Narodami Livii i Sirii (Комитет солидарности с народами Ливии и Сирии).
… ob”edinit’ usiliya rossiisikoi obshestvennosti, vystupayushchei za prekrashchenie agressii NATO protiv Livii i informatsionnoi voiny protiv Sirii.
[… объединить усилия российской общественности, выступающей за прекращение агрессии НАТО против Ливии и информационной войны против Сирии).
Natsional’naya konferentsiya vseh plemen Livii vyrazila etomu pravitel’stvu i lideru Liviiskoii Dzhamahirii M. Kaddafi polnuyu podderzhku.
Trebuem ot Pravitel’stva Rossii srochno okazat’ vsemernuyu ekonomicheskuyu i voenno-tehnicheskuyu pomoshch’ Sirii, nahodyashchyeiisya pod ugrozoii ekonomicheskoi blokady i voennogo vtorzheniya teh zhe sil, chto ubivayut mirnoe naselenie Livii.
[Национальная конференция всех племен Ливии выразила этому правительству и лидеру Ливийской Джамахирии М.Каддафи полную поддержку.
Требуем от Правительства России срочно оказать всемерную экономическую и военно-техническую помощь Сирии, находящейся под угрозой экономической блокады и военного вторжения тех же сил, что убивают мирное население Ливии.]
fn4: Sologubovsky also claimed that the ‘extremist opposition want to realize what they call democracy through a non-democratic way, pointing out that dialogue is the only way to get out of the crisis in Syria’. Presumably, then, his advocacy for arming the dictatorial regime was arming for peace.
(Edited, 11.15am, 30th August 2011; updated with Mark Durney’s information, 11.40pm, 30th August 2011; updated with archaeological opinion, 1.55pm, 31st August 2011; updated with more propaganda material, 1am, 1st September 2011; updated with more public opinion and archaeological opinion, 2.10am, 5th September 2011.)