The auctioning of hundreds of African immigrants in Libya is perhaps one of the most underreported news stories of today. After CNN first published video footage of “slave auctions” in Libya last month, further news coverage has largely failed to provide context for understanding the crisis, some media professionals warn.
Communications professors and a human rights lawyer caution that news coverage without the proper historical, social and economic understanding of Libya – and U.S. foreign policy in the region – leaves newsreaders largely unaware of the origins leading to this modern-day human trafficking crisis.
“In this age of the 24-hour news cycle, we tend to get the headlines and the most controversial pieces, but we don’t get the full story,” said Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead, associate professor of communication and African and American Studies at Loyola University Maryland. “What is unclear is exactly what the U.S. can do to respond. It’s unclear what individuals can do to respond. It is unclear whether or not Libya is complicit in what’s going on.”
Whitehead acknowledges that seeing headlines such as the one that CNN published, “People for sale,” is alarming, but journalists should be asking, “How long has this been happening?” “Can we really organize in such a way that we can either halt this or stop this?” or even, “How is it also connected to Libya’s economy? Is this an economic base for them in the same way that, for example, American slavery was an economic base for us?” she added.
After reading coverage of the migrant auctions, Whitehead says that she wanted a historical angle of the current crisis, and wonders if the United Nations or the U.S. has any power to place any pressure on the Libyan government to address the issue.
“I felt almost powerless when I read [the headlines],” she said. “I was concerned, alarmed, upset…but I felt almost powerless because it is not a country that we tend to be directly involved in when you think about our political network.”
Rev. Al Sharpton, president and founder of National Action Network (NAN), announced on his syndicated radio that he intends to lead a fact-finding mission to Libya before Christmas. A NAN press release states that the reports of the African immigrants being auctioned off have “brought back horrific memories of one of the darkest chapters in human history — when millions of Africans were enslaved and auctioned to the highest bidder across the globe.”
News publications like Fortune, Bustle and The Washington Post have been proactive in contextualizing some of the conditions that led to the current slave trade in Libya. They highlight some ways that readers can support migration and anti-slavery organizations.
In a discussion with The Real News, Dr. Horace G. Campbell, professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University, challenged media outlets to fully investigate who is potentially making money out of the slave trades, where the people are being sold and what the conditions are that provide for the migrant auctions to be a lucrative trade.
In October, CNN obtained video footage that revealed smugglers auctioning off a dozen migrants for as little as $400 each. Reporters then received word that there were slave markets in nine other locations across Libya with many more auctions possibly taking place each month.
It is estimated that between 400,000 and one million migrants looking to finding better opportunities in Europe may now be trapped in Libya. Smugglers and others at this migration gateway may prey upon, rob, murder or exploit vulnerable migrants, reports say.
The migrant slave auctions in Libya have been denounced and condemned by Spain, France, European Union officials, international immigration organizations and Libyan officials themselves, who claim that more support from the global community is needed to address the problem.
Even so, the most recent reports of the slave auctions and the global slave trade have “not really penetrated the news cycle in a way that leads people to be educated enough to make a positive impact,” said Nicole Lee, an international human rights lawyer, founder of the Lee Bayard Group, LLC, and former president of TransAfrica, an advocacy, research and education organization that focuses on foreign policy affecting countries throughout the African diaspora.
Lee says that there has been no understanding or news analysis on what role the U.S. has been playing in Libya or North Africa on a broader scale, for the last three to five years. “The last story that gained any traction was the story of the soldiers in Mali,” she said. “In order to have that analysis, you have to have facts. It seems that there aren’t a lot of resources being put into ensuring that we actually have the story correct.”
Of the coverage that she has seen, Lee has been struck by the “cynicism” and what she sees as a sanitization of the coverage on migrant auctions by professional news outlets. “We literally have people being sold into slavery, and we know it, and we know where it is. We know where it’s happening, and it’s almost like, ‘Well, it’s happening because it’s Libya,’” she said.
However, “human rights is beyond politics,” said Lonnie Isabel, professor and senior lecturer at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. As a former deputy managing editor of Newsday, he is aware that while reporting in the region may be limited as journalists fall subject to press suppression by local governments, it is still the responsibility of the press to write on the trafficking and selling of people.
“We play a very important role in bringing attention to the world about the most horrible things that happen to people on this planet,” he said. “If we don’t do that, then we’re not really fulfilling our role.
Journalists can do this by confronting people and governments that are committing terrible acts, and by reporting on and speaking to “the people who are the most politically in jeopardy,” Isabel added. “I think that it is absolutely necessary for us, even from afar, to write about this.”
Amateur journalists and social sites like Twitter have been influential in sharing the smaller intricacies of a story that larger media organizations may not fully report immediately. The challenge is ensuring that people take the extra step to fact-check information they come across, Whitehead said.
Following a tweet by President Trump claiming that “CNN International is still a major source of (Fake) news…,” the broadcaster Libya 218 questioned the credibility of CNN’s video detailing the auction of the migrants in Libya. It said: “Here the possibility arises that the channel has published the report of slavery in Libya to secure an as yet hidden political objective.”
This is concerning as the term “fake news” has been weaponized and legitimized “from the highest echelons of power here in America” and used to discredit reports or findings that are potentially embarrassing, threatening or concerning, Whitehead said.
“The media – particularly the media that’s doing conscious journalism – has to double down and say ‘What is the real story here?’ and we have to be the filter for people because there is so much news coming all of the time,” she said. “This is when we need the media’s gaze to show us and to tell us what is happening so that we don’t get caught up thinking about ‘fake news’ and turn our attention to the next thing.”
Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.