The Jan. 11 death of Gilles Jacquier, reporter for Gaul’s France 2 channel, underscores the dangers faced by journalists in areas of political unrest — and in particular the unique perils to those in Syria. But a few hardy souls are using ingenuity and unusual methods to shed light on the region.
Jacquier was killed when rocket grenades exploded among a group of pro-government activists as well as reporters on a state-sponsored visit to the beleaguered Syrian city of Homs, which has been a hot spot of rebellion by those pushing Syria to join the Arab Spring.
Journos who manage to get into the country are closely monitored and prevented from speaking to opposition leaders or from visiting the centers of the rebellion.
While most broadcasters have relied on video footage of the protests from social media sites like YouTube to run alongside reports filed by correspondents based outside of the country, a few freelance TV journalists have opted to enter the country undercover, with the help of opposition groups, so that they can deliver first-hand accounts of the conflict.
Late last year, French TV reporter Paul Moreira and cameraman Pedro Brito da Fonseca spent 10 days with resistance fighters in northwestern Syria, and accompanied them on attacks on army bases. Their docu on the subject, “Inside the Syrian Insurrection,” aired on French paybox Canal Plus last month, and is now being sold abroad by Zodiak Rights. It was produced by Moreira’s shingle Premieres Lignes.
The covert nature of their work forced them to adopt elaborate measures to avoid detection. “At times we felt as if we were the protagonists in a spy movie,” Moreira says.
In such situations, the journalists’ efforts to get the story become part of the film’s narrative. “What I liked about the documentary is that it feels spontaneous; Moreira’s emotions are palpable,” says Alexandre Piel, head of acquisitions and co-productions at Zodiak Rights. “This is really a film about two journalists risking their lives to show what’s happening in Syria.”
Piel says the company was interested the instant it saw the rough cut of the docu. “We know that international channels are always on the lookout for time-sensitive, exclusive content,” he says.
Sue Lloyd-Roberts meanwhile, went to Syria undercover for the BBC twice last year, first to Damascus, and later to Homs, a hotbed of anti-government resistance and a lightning rod for suppression by government forces.
Lloyd-Roberts has traveled undercover in many countries where press freedom is limited — including the former Soviet Union, Tibet and Burma — during her 21-year career as a foreign correspondent. In Syria, she posed as a Byzantium scholar.
“I arrange my belongings in such a way that there is absolutely no evidence on me that I am a journalist,” she says. “Everything has to be sanitized. Laptops have to be prepared, with my cover story intact. Every time you are undercover, you have to assume that you’re going to be arrested any day.”
Lloyd-Roberts does her own filming. “I’m much happier doing that because there’s a risk involved, and I’d much rather work in those kind of circumstances only having to worry about myself and the people who I am working with inside the country,” she says.
She adds that using a lightweight camera affects picture quality, but the unique nature of the content she captures makes it worthwhile. “If your footage is exclusive, it doesn’t matter if it isn’t fantastically sophisticated and technically marvelous, because an exclusive is an exclusive,” she says.
If caught, journalists know they are likely to be imprisoned, but for Moreira there was added danger in Syria. “I’ve traveled to many war zones, such as Iraq, but I had never felt threatened by the government as I did in Syria, where showing your camera could get you gunned down,” he says.
Traveling covertly means that a reporter’s fate is in the hands of the people who smuggle them in. But Lloyd-Roberts says it is best to trust those people. “Once you are across the border, I believe that you should entirely accept what they are telling you, and do what they tell you, within reason,” she says.
“At times in my life, I’ve had people who’ve gone a bit psychotic on me and are clearly on some kind of personal suicide mission; that’s when you realize that you have got to take the situation in your own hands. But by and large I’ve been very impressed by an incredibly intelligent, brave, canny Syrian opposition.”
Lloyd-Roberts and Moreira have different approaches when it comes to allowing interviewees to show their faces on-camera.
“We never asked the resistance fighters we interviewed to show their faces, but many of them wanted to, because they were proud of their actions, and wanted to make a statement,” Moreira says.
Lloyd-Roberts, however, says the journalist should make sure the interviewee remains disguised, because the risks to them are too great. “For a foreign reporter caught in Syria, and there have been a few, it’s really not very serious: It’s a few days’ arrest, which I’ve had before, and I can easily tolerate. What’s more worrying is if you put anyone you are working with in danger, because then it can be arrest, torture, possibly execution or having to flee the country.”
Soazig Dollet, head of the Middle East and North Africa desk at Reporters Without Borders, an org that fights for press freedom, agrees.
“Journalists traveling to Syria must be extremely careful how they handle their sources,” Dollet says. “Some journalists have caused waves of arrests and left behind sources who either got killed, abducted or tortured.”
Reporters Without Borders provoked an uproar late last year when it recommended that female journalists should not go to Egypt, following a spate of attacks.
But being a female journalist in a country like Syria has its advantages. “The irony is, in covering the Arab Spring, undercover work is made easier for a woman in that you’re wearing the hijab,” Lloyd-Roberts says. “You can put on an abaya (a traditional dress that covers the whole body), and as far as men are concerned, you just don’t register.
“I’ve been stopped many times at roadblocks; women are just not questioned, and very rarely are they asked for documentation because they are kind of non-people.”
For Lloyd-Roberts, the opportunity to go where few other journalists have gone make the risks worthwhile. “I’m bewildered by how few people have bothered to get in because it isn’t that difficult,” she says. “Maybe the problem is that one feature of the Syrian uprising has been that the opposition have been assiduous in the collection and distribution of pictures. So maybe this has made mainstream journalists a bit idle. … You can always put together a film report on Syria by using the YouTube output.
“But if you can talk to people on a personal basis, it makes all the difference, and has more impact,” she says.
Will Lloyd-Roberts return to Syria soon? “I wouldn’t care to say,” she replies. “But put it like this, I am pretty committed to the story.”