One evening, at the 8pm press conference that the Libyan regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi hosts each day at Tripoli's Rixos Hotel, a letter was handed to journalists. It was a photocopy of a communication to Li Baodong, Chinese ambassador to the UN and president of the security council. For the journalists in Tripoli, it was the sixth paragraph that stood out. "No restrictions are imposed on the foreign media," it said. "Media correspondents work freely in Libya, and all necessary facilities are provided for them. They have freedom of movement, except in areas controlled by al-Qaida terrorists." Which would suggest, on recent experience including that of the Guardian, that most of the country is controlled by al-Qaida – including areas controlled by the government. The reality is that journalists cannot operate freely in Tripoli at all, despite repeated promises from individuals including Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, and the deputy foreign minister, Khalid Khayem. In recent days the Guardian has been held twice for testing this promise, once for six and a half hours outside the town of Zawiyah – which included a visit to an intelligence barracks. During that episode, journalists were told they would be blindfolded and taken to an undisclosed location. On the second occasion, the Guardian reporter was held for three hours by paratroopers at a checkpoint with tree other British journalists, among 24 who were detained across Tripoli on a single day. Other nationalities – all with permission to work as reporters in the country – have been subjected to far harsher treatment: some have been held overnight, physically assaulted by militia or threatened with loaded weapons. It is clear too that the regime's press representatives have little interest in protecting journalists when they are in trouble. When the Guardian was detained on Saturday, other correspondents who appealed to the head of the press office for assistance were told he had washed his hands of us. There was a "price to pay" for not playing by the rules. When Gaddafi's men are helpful, it's sometimes in the most sinister of terms. A government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim, speaking to a scrum of journalists ahead of an anticipated speech by Gaddafi at the hotel warned photogrtaphers not to go up to the first floor to take photographs, saying: "If you go upstairs, you'll be shot dead immediately. I'm just warning you. I'm tyring to be helpful." If there is a sense of threat against the international media, invited by the regime to Tripoli, the consequences for those Libyans who speak to us is far more serious. Last Friday a young man from Souk al-Juma'a, an opposition hot spot in Tripoli, was arrested in front of us after engaging in a few words of conversation outside a mosque. Journalists are followed or shouted at by government minders when they don't like the copy. Internet is patchy at best. Phone calls, it is widely believed, are listened to. And in the last few days, an already hostile attitude has become more overtly menacing. After a week of being accused of lying and of being part of an international conspiracy to divide Libya, the charges on Monday night against the British media – or the English – have become more specific. Those allegations were delivered in a halting performance by the foreign minister, Musa Kusa, who read in Arabic from a prepared statement that reiterated the same, often incoherent, line that has been delivered by both Gaddafi and his son Saif. It began with a denunciation of the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates for calling for a UN resolution. The minister was apparently nothing more than a "businessman" and should not be taken seriously. The "English", Kusa said pointedly, had now been shown to have been part of a conspiracy – proved by the bungled SAS operation to contact the rebels. The English, he added, were "yearning for the colonial era". It was a message not lost on British journalists. Amid the coded messages to the media, there have been overt messages too. At the press conferences in the Rixos, the minister Khayem accused the media of lacking professionalism and suggested journalists should be "ashamed of themselves" for their transgressions. The content of these press conferences verges on the surreal, with black being called white. On Monday evening, Kusa reiterated that message: "You should be honest. You are betraying your job." In these briefings, offensive operations against the rebels are described as defensive – even in Zawiyah, which has been pounded for days by artillery during multiple assaults. According to the government – in a moment of Orwellian logic – their troops' offensive was initiated while government forces were in the process of "retreating". Which leads to a question: why are we here? The answer is a deeply worrying one. Journalists are in Tripoli to provide a backdrop for the regime's pronouncements. We are not only the enemy – to be denounced in performances filmed by state TV – we are a captive audience which is seen by Libyans each day meekly writing down the regime's pronouncements. In writing and recording what the spokesmen and Gaddafi say, we supply a vicarious credence to their claims no matter how extraordinary. The alternative to risky attempts at independent journalism – which has the potential of consequences for both interviewer and interviewee – is what the access the government provides, which is increasingly little. Each day journalists gather at the Rixos to see if there will be a bus trip to a location where – inevitably – they will be met by a staged demonstration of regime loyalists who have often been paid to attend or given a holiday from work to attend. Journalism then is a question of enduring the shouted pro-forma praise for the regime and waiting for an encounter with those who oppose Gaddafi, even in these circumstances, when people will come and speak quietly amid the clamour. As the country becomes ever more difficult to report from, what is happening to ordinary Libyan civilians is ever more effectively being censored. And at some point, by our very presence, in being ineffective we will become accomplices in that censorship.