Two Americans whose first foray into citizen journalism was filming at an Occupy protest have moved on to one of the most dangerous places in the world for reporters of any skill level
Even for the biggest news organizations in the world, Syria is one of the most challenging locations to report from. A number of reporters – from novice citizen journalists to the world’s most venerated war correspondents – have died covering the conflict there.
Yet without the backing of a media company and with little experience as journalists, two Americans, William Gagan, 30, and Geoffery Shivley, 29, decided to enter Syria in a risky attempt to film inside the divided country.
They crossed the border from Turkey earlier this month with a defector from President Bashar al-Assad’s military, the same forces they hoped to observe in the field. Some might regard their escapade as at best naive and at worst foolhardy; they insist they took sensible precautions and were motivated by a desire to help a suffering people.
The pair managed to enter Syria on three occasions, totaling approximately 10 to 15 hours in the country near the Turkish border town of Guvecci. They have returned with footage of their surreptitious entry, as well as two interviews from inside a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey and video from a pro-Assad rally in the president’s Turkish hometown. They also recorded a plea from FSA fighters for foreign intervention and arms.
Prior to Syria, Shivley, from Newport Beach, California, spent most of his adult life working in computer security. In the last year he has provided online support for the Occupy movement. He is currently an agent with the “hacktivist” news agency Telecomix, which provided the pair with online security and support throughout their time in the region.
Six months ago, Gagan, from San Francisco, was serving drinks in a bar and going to college. He too was drawn to Occupy and describes himself as “an independent citizen journalist” covering the movement. Gagan says reporting on Occupy helped prepare him to cover conditions in Syria. He refers back to an Occupy Oakland action on 28 January that he covered via live stream. Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets and number of clashes with police ensued.
“All hell broke loose and I was in the middle of it every time,” Gagan said.
“I’ve almost felt invincible and thought, ‘Screw it, go live stream from Syria,'” he explained. Over the course of two weeks, he laid out preparations to do just that. According to Gagan, he “organized it very quickly”.
Gagan flew alone from Los Angeles on 17 February and arrived in Istanbul, Turkey the following day. He had “only one contact” in the country, whom he met on Twitter. He planned to sneak into Syria and report on his observations via live stream, as he had done with Occupy actions in the United States. Shivley joined him later after raising some money online.
“I was going to get some truths out of the trip. I was going to find out what was really going on, if the mainstream media was reporting the truth of the conflict or if there was a whole different story not being told,” he said.
Gagan said he had been following developments in Syria “very closely”, reading news reports and watching videos. He did not, however, feel it was worth spending time researching Syrian history. “I knew about the parties and the Sunnis and I looked up a little of Assad’s background and whatnot but I didn’t really think any of that was relevant,” he added. “The fact of the matter is people were dying and that’s what I was going there to try to help.”
The two say they had contacts in at least four countries monitoring their progress in case anything went wrong and carried an extensive array of electronics and satellite tracking equipment. They also said they informed the US embassy in Turkey of their plans but said they received no contact from US officials prior to entering Syria.
Gagan and Shivley focused their attention on issues particular to Syria’s border regions; namely the ease with which they entered the country and the state of Syrian refugee camps in Turkey.
Video recorded by the two shows them stepping over razor-wire as they entered Syria in the middle of the day on 25 February, near an apparently unmanned Turkish guard tower. Having observed high levels of security elsewhere along the border – and given that they were in view of another armed Turkish outpost when they entered and exited Syria – led Gagan to conclude that the Turkish government is turning a blind eye to border crossings at their point of access.
“They’re secretly trying to help,” he said. “I felt like the Turkish military are not there for a reason. They’re letting the FSA make that crossing to get supplies,” Gagan added, saying that the FSA were happy for them to film and publish the footage.
He said weapons are kept in a town on the Turkish side of the border. “We know the town that these guys were going to, to be honest, the FSA were traveling to, has weapons in it.”
The pair paid the same Syrian defector who led them across the border to join their translator in secretly entering a Syrian refugee camp on the Turkish side of the border. At great personal risk, the men managed to record two interviews while inside the camp.
Shivley described how difficult it is to acquire information from within the camps: “You have to file papers with the local municipality where the refugee camp is hosted and if you get permission to go to the camp, you either get a pre-selected interview in a well-defined area for only 15 minutes or they’ll take your camera in for you, get you some footage and come out.”
Already, the pair are facing criticism for their trip: many comments under their video on YouTube are negative. One says: “Gagan – you shouldn’t be running around putting people in danger because you’re on a ‘little’ adventure. Seriously reprehinsible behaviour.”
Gagan rejects the argument that reporting in Syria and in similar conflicts should be left to experienced journalists.
“To be honest, yes, there’s some experience that these people have under their belt. They’ve been in these war zones circumstances, but I really feel that it doesn’t matter when you’re on the ground. Bullets don’t discriminate.”
from Ryan Devereaux