Monday, August 06, 2007

Shatha's Creations إبداعات ليبية

My niece, Shatha, is holding an exhibit of her work in Cairo, Egypt, on August 12, 2007.

Poem by Shatha's proud grandfather, Libyan poet Ragab el-Magri.

الشعر بقلم الشاعر الليبي رجب الماجري، جد شذى الفخور.


Friday, August 03, 2007

A Case of Irrational Integers

The Libyan HIV case came to a negotiated settlement, and the end game may well be to the satisfaction of all parties in the negotiations, or maybe not! That's to be seen. Negotiations are all about making a deal not about seeking the truth. It is the presumed mission of the judicial process and the public discourse to get to the truth. But in all the hubbub surrounding the Benghazi HIV outbreak, it seems unclear what truths have been uncovered, and whether we're asking the right questions to begin with. Who are the victims? How did they get infected? Who did it? Why? Are Libyans safer now than they were in 1998? Those are some of the fundamental issues that need to be scrutinized openly and cooperatively, but they remain either unanswered or unsatisfactorily answered. The core of this weird case, the infected victims, have never really caught the eye or mind of the public, not even the Libyan public. In fact, we know very little about them, so little that it makes you wonder what went wrong.

Much has been written and rewritten about the case by politicians, conspiracy spinners, journalists, and even scientists. The latest variety has to do with comparisons of the commitment of the state to its citizens (Libya/Arabs vs. Bulgaria/Europe) and comparisons of the compensations paid to the HIV victims vs. Western victims in major international cases. Arab pundits complain that the 10-to-1 compensation discrepancy reflects the difference in how much Western vs. Arab states value their citizens. There is some validity to the argument, but the full truth really lies in the healthiness of the relation between the state and the public. In the case of Libya, that relation has been dysfunctional for decades, and the HIV case serves as a good example of failures on both sides.

The attention given to the HIV case ought to have moved us closer to the truth than we were in late 1998. Certainly we do know much more about today than we did initially, but the quality of what we know is poor. Unfortunately, we have not really seen the sort of informative discussion that we need because the attention has come mainly from two camps, with its own prejudgments and preconceived agenda. On one side is the West, states plus publics, on the other is Libya, state without a public. Perhaps we expect politicians and diplomats to circumvent an open, thorough dialog. But we expect better from journalists and scientists, who have brought some of the worst disappointments to the open public dialog. I plan to support this claim with numerical examples from the popular and scientific press, to demonstrate the dullness and disengagement of the public consciousness toward even establishing foundations for the truth, let alone finding it.

The search for the truth does not even have a firmly established starting point in this 9-year-old disaster. Here is a simple quiz you might want to try on people around you:

    Q: In the Lockerbie bombing, how many were accused in court and how many were the victims?

Most readers would find that easy to answer, if not from memory, then based on a simple news search. The consistently reported numbers would be 2 accused and 270 victims. Some might give the number of victims in different units, such as $2.7B, and some might give further details like 270 = 259 passengers + 11 victims on the ground, or the various installments of the payment, etc. There is a high level of consistency from one news source to another, court records to news outlets, and even in casual conversations.

    Q: How many are accused and how many are victims in the Libyan HIV case?

Everyone gets that there are 6 medics accused, or 5 and 1 if there's a preference for ethnic coordinates. Even the hardest racists would make a pretty close approximation at 5. How about the number of victims of the Benghazi HIV outbreak? Here we need to pause, right?

What is your best answer? Many? Hundreds? Over 400? Did you answer the Lockerbie question in the same way?

The two numbers I see most often reported are 426 and 438 children. Sometimes you get the additional detail that 19 mothers also contracted the virus from their infected infants. Does that make the total number of victims 445/457? You never find the latter numbers reported anywhere. You will find lots of reports that say "over 400" or "close to such and such," which might actually come from people who are trying to adjust to the conflict between the most widely quoted numbers. Instead of committing to one or the other, they just say "over 400."

It's natural to wonder which number is right, 426, 438, over 400? Actually, they are all arguably wrong, as I will show below, but that's not the point, anyway. The real issue is why the hell can't it be one number, even after the case has been in the spotlight for almost a decade? The nucleus of truth in this case is the number of victims, and that seed has been shattered with no dispute whatsoever. We don't have one side saying one number and the other side saying another. There is nothing systematic about the use of the various numbers. And we are not talking about some historical natural disaster. This is a case that has occupied the very center of world attention, yet we have everyone saying different numbers completely obliviously? The undisputed variety of something so fundamental says a lot about the level and quality of public consciousness in this case. I think it says that deep down, our awareness of this horrible case is at best approximate, dull or fuzzy; and at worst, people are just indifferent to the root causes.

Before anyone jumps to accusing the West, the North or whomever, let me say the situation is equally bad all across the board. First we'll look at the general picture, then we'll check the Libyan press. I did some simple searches on Google, and here are some raw results:



Normalized Hits

Libya HIV more than 400



Libya HIV 426



Libya HIV 438



Libya HIV 393



The table above lists search strings and corresponding number of hits (or results). In the third column the hits are normalized so that the maximum = 100. These numbers are based on searches from over a week ago, so the results may look different now. Still a number of general observations on the numbers are valid. The data show that "more than 400" is the most frequently used, the numbers 426 and 438 are used with comparable frequency. The number 393 will be explained later, but it should be noted that it is the least frequent of the lot.

Now, what about Libyan news sources?

There are two or three kinds of Libyan news sites. Over most of the past nine years, the official Libyan press hardly paid any real attention to the HIV case. The exceptions have been a few timed propaganda campaigns that could hardly inform any truth seeking process, being full of far-fetched conspiracy theories and bluffs of revealing documented involvement of foreign intelligence, etc. In reality, the Libyan authorities can't even produce the full names of two--alleged--central conspirators identified only as "John" and "Adel." Anyway, for present purposes, we can take as an example of official Libyan press, an editorial in al-Jamahiriya newspaper that I saw in the last couple of weeks. The opening line said, "More than 437 children were infected..." If you stomached that, then you know they're using 438.

An important official reference is the Libyan court literature. Two leaked reports of the courts convened in 2004 and 2006 contain lots of numbers, even multiple accounts of the number of victims! It was surprised to find the official court accusation specifying 393 children and 19 mothers, which did not correspond to my prior “knowledge” from press reports. However, after sifting through the court records, I got a total of less than 300 named victims, including some mothers. Nevertheless, the official court number of 393 means all references to 426 and 438 are false, at least as they are often used in the form of "...accused of infecting X," and "...convicted of infecting X." No one was ever officially accused or convicted of infecting 426, 438 or "over 400" children, contrary to widely circulated reports. Also, even in recent post-settlement reports, people use children and families interchangeably, but in the court records there are multiple families with multiple infected children, in addition to the ones with children and mothers. One of the families has five infected children. That is the kind of painful detail that remains all but hidden from, and also disregarded by the public conscious.

The appearance of the number 426 in court records is of course interesting. I first found it mentioned parenthetically in the court's summary of a report submitted by the defense but prepared for them by an unnamed human rights organization (aka the Gaddafi Foundation!) In other words, according to court documents, the medics were accused of infecting 393 children, but in their defense they specify the number of infected children at 426! I later found the same number mentioned by the prosecution, which might be taken as a sign of confirmation, but why the heck is the Court saying 393 and naming under 300? And why is the families' representative saying other numbers all together? In official Libyan press, the state just talks to itself. No one is heard ever asking, no one gasping, and no evidence of a public. Everyone just kept on picking whatever number suited their purpose. Even the families' representative did not keep his numbers straight, as I will show below.

Outside Libya, there are several unofficial news sites, and they generally can be identified with a political agenda, but they are at least independent of one another. Mostly they are small operations run on the side by individuals and small groups of amateur/non-professional journalists. They mainly recirculate stories from various international news agencies, but they also publish some original news contents of their own. In some cases it seems unclear what's copied and what's original. I chose three different sites, and some search results for them are summarized below, with normalized numbers in parentheses. Again, these numbers are over a week old, but the general picture is probably still valid.


أكثر من 400 طفل




426 طفل




438 طفل




393 طفل




The results might seem to be all over the board, but a few points are worth noting. The numbers 438 and 426 are both used quite frequently by Libyan sites. On the other hand, the number 393 is almost never used, contrary to the big picture of world press! In the case of Libya-Alyoum and Libya-Almostakbal, the number 393 was found only in the leaked court documents from 2004 and 2006, as I mentioned, not in news stories. I find it quite strange that, which claims credit for a lot of its copied news contents, does not stick to a single number! In fact, you can even find them using the numbers 426 and 438 in consecutive paragraphs of the same article! This kind of inconsistency defies logic and rational thinking as to its origin, but its implications are unambiguously damning! Imagine if you had an engineering firm designing airplanes by using different densities of aluminum or different values of Pi. The reporting of news must also unify and standardize its "constants," not to mention confirm their validity. This is a news organization that often hosts official representatives of the victims, organizes public campaigns on their behalf, but does not care enough to get the fundamental truth and tell us exactly how many victims there are! Instead of providing a clear, unambiguous message, the Libyan sites are contributing to the ambiguity and disarray.

Take a look at the next table, where I collected most of the numbers that have been used. The variety and range of numbers is just shocking, especially when you consider some of the sources.




The number of infected children mentioned in the court accusation (along with 19 mothers), according to leaked court documents from 2004 and 2006. This number was also picked up by some news outlets. The actual number of named victims in the court literature is under 300.


This is one of the two most widely reported numbers of infected children. Its origin seems to be a report submitted on behalf of the accused by the Gaddafi Foundation. But it is also mentioned in the prosecution's argument in September, 2003 and again in February 2004.


This is one of the numbers mentioned by Mr. Idris Lagha , a victim's father and president of the Infected Children's Families Association, in one of his many articles. In Libyan court documents, this number is said to come from a confession by one of the accused.


This is the number mentioned in a signature campaign that was organized in December 06 by the news website Some 800 people signed the petition, including minors.


This is another number specified in an article by Mr. Idris Lagha. The article, “Holocaust of the Benghazi Children” was posted in March 2007 on Mr. Lagha's blog.


This is the number according to a statement issued by something called the Libyan Association for the Rights of Children and Women in the Great Jamahiriya.


Another one of the two most frequently quoted number in world media. This number is also given by Mr. Lagha in some of his articles and official communications.


This is the number quoted by Mr. Lagha after the settlement. The actual quote as I recall was (about 460, among them about 20 mothers.) He might mean 438 + 19 = 457. See the other three numbers given by Mr. Lagha on previous occasions. Interestingly, the first occurrence of 460 that I could find is in an article by a Dr. Hanan Farouqi entitled “Has the whole world gone Zionist?” which was posted by Mr. Lagha to his blog back in February 2007 when he was still saying 433.


This number is mentioned four times in a scientific article published by the Libyan Journal of Medicine. Interestingly, two of the authors are members of LJM's editorial staff, and one of them, the Editor in Chief, also testified in court as a member of the National Experts Committee that reviewed the documents of the case and disputed the findings of L. Montagnier and V. Colizzi.

Close to 600

This number is also mentioned along with the four occurrences of “500+” in the Libyan Journal of Medicine article cited previously.


This is the number of infected children that was assumed in the calculations of an earlier article co-authored by an associate editor of the Libyan Journal of Medicine, and echoed in Arabic translations on the official and unofficial Libyan press.


Yes, forty-five thousand children is another implicitly assumed number in the calculations of the previously mentioned LJM Article.

There you have it, a cross section of the public consciousness—from 393 to 45,000! That's not what I would call sharp or precise, even if you cut it down to 393-438. They are all whole numbers but their collection is completely irrational, and for me, it would not be any less irrational if they included fractions. If you were sent to another planet to investigate a similar case, wouldn't your first question be how many? And if you got widely repeated conflicting numbers--with no disputes--would you ever think that some truth-seeking process is nine years underway? It would have to be the planet of the apes--and unfortunately, it is!

In the discourse that surrounds this case, there has been a lot of aping and senseless duplication that amounts to a mountain of data but very little information. Public awareness is fundamentally an outcome of demanding and exercising the public right to know. The press in general, and the Libyan press in particular has failed to inform the public properly in this case. Yes, they provided a lot of data but they failed to seek genuine information on behalf of the public, and thus even the advocate press failed to anchor the case in the public consciousness. Otherwise, how can we characterize the publication of conflicting accounts by a news site that has an evident extensive connection with the victims' representatives? And how could a news editor publish conflicting numbers a hundred times without stopping once to ask loudly: What is the number and why don't we know it? There's a saying that no right is lost that has a claimant. Perhaps the converse is also true, that no right is earned without someone standing to claim it. What the numbers show more clearly than anything is the absence of a claim to the Libyan public right to know. There is no public demand for accuracy or even precision; there is only consumers of data. Maybe Libyan and Arab pundits should consider that part of the inequality when they compare and contemplate the value of citizens to their respective states.