Stokes Croft: Reporting a Riot

Friday 29 April 2011

When rioting broke out in the Stokes Croft area of Bristol in the early hours of Friday morning, swathes of people across the country found themselves glued to Twitter, following the action as it unfolded.

The unrest began when Avon and Somerset police descended on a squatted property at Cheltenham Road late on Thursday evening, in an attempt to arrest squatters who they claimed had “criminal intentions”.

The squat, known as Telepathic Heights, is located opposite a Tesco Express store, which recently opened despite strong resistance and campaigning from local people who felt it would pose a threat to local businesses. Police said they had received intelligence that the squatters were making petrol bombs, and obtained a warrant to search the property on that basis. “There was a very real threat to the local community,” said Assistant Chief Constable Rod Hansen.

After four arrests were made, protesters gathered in the streets. Police told the crowds to disperse, but were ignored. There was a confrontation, the Tesco was attacked and objects were thrown at police. What happened next has been documented in detail by Oli Conner in his first-hand account, published yesterday on ourKingdom. Bristol resident Adam Ramsay has also provided a useful eye-witness report here, which includes some of the background story.

The mainstream media were extremely slow to respond to the chaotic scenes. Twitter was ablaze with people shocked at the lack of coverage. “Searching for info on #StokesCroft uprising in the absence of proper media coverage is like living in fucking China or North Korea,” tweeted @meowist_gorilla.

Others speculated it was a conspiracy to suppress details of the riot getting out. “Looks to me like the media has been ordered not to run the #StokesCroft riot story,” wrote @SDMumford. “Sounds to me completely botched by the police.”

A more likely and less sinister reason for the absence of instant coverage, though, was the timing. The event occurred in the early hours on a public holiday . . . most of Bristol’s small congregation of working hacks were probably in bed or somewhere far from the newsroom. (If it had occurred in London, there is little doubt that the story would have been given more immediate attention – for no other reason than that there are a far greater number of journalists living and working in the capital, particularly at night time.)

Nonetheless, when the story eventually did break, there can be no excuse for the poor standard of the reporting. Most of the major national news outlets – the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Independent, the Express, the Guardian, the Sun, the BBC and the Times – ran with a “police hurt by protesters” headline, yet most of the photographs and videos available on the internet depicted injured protesters.

According to a scan performed by (a Media Standards Trust website that can compare a press release with articles published by national newspapers), the Telegraph had simply copied and pasted 74% of its report from a police news release. The Express wasn’t much better, at 71%; and the BBC, too, were also guilty of a cut and paste job – their report, which was later amended, copied 68% of the police line.

Of more concern was the striking lack of accuracy. Despite no eyewitness accounts to corroborate it, almost all of the major newspapers published a bogus assertion that the Tesco opposite the squat was “petrol bombed”. The alleged incident, which seems to have originated in a report by the Press Association, formed the basis of several newspapers’ headlines.

“Riot police bombarded and shop petrol-bombed,” stated the Daily Mail; “Tesco store petrol bombed,” recounted the Telegraph; “PETROL BOMBS FLY IN BRISTOL TESCO RIOT HELL,” howled the Star. Even the respectable Times was guilty: “mob petrol bombs Tesco," they wrote, before later amending their piece to read instead, “Bristol mob wrecks Tesco store and attacks police”.

In the first instance, it was pure anti-journalism: uncorroborated rumours presented as fact, with the police’s account of events regurgitated scarcely without question or counter. (It should also be noted that two of the better reports came from the Guardian and, unusually, the Sun – both of whom gave claims of police heavy handedness moderately fair prominence.)

Even at the time of writing – 24 hours after the riot – the “petrol bombs thrown at Tesco” line still stands on the websites of several of the above listed newspapers. It has not been corrected, substantiated, verified or cross referenced. But it is still being presented to the world as if it is fact – and for all those who are not in the know, it will be treated as such.

This is a problem, of course, not least because journalism that is inaccurate is journalism that is worthless. There is already a sense of disdain and distrust for the mainstream media among many protesters and activist groups – and unfortunately the subpar reporting of the Stokes Croft riot illustrates precisely why.

As we have witnessed throughout several recent large protests involving students and cuts demonstrators, there has all too often been a high prevalence of regurgitated police press releases, paired with obvious bias in favour of the authorities no matter what the circumstances. Inaccurate reporting is, on this occasion, the final nail in the coffin.

Consequently, more and more people, particularly those involved in various protest movements, are now shunning the mainstream press altogether. This can result – as Dan Hancox argues in his introduction to OurKingdom's Reader on the Winter Protests, Fight Back! – in a form of “self kettling”, a kind of self-imposed isolation. Increasingly, information is shared and disseminated on a peer-to-peer basis via social networks (live video streams are also a growing phenomenon, and on Friday morning on-the-ground live footage from @grantikins was watched by thousands). Where the mainstream media has fallen short, it seems, citizen journalists have stepped in.

Many, particularly the young, now appear to feel that the only way to obtain the factual truth is from those ‘live tweeting’ at the scene. For honest, traditional journalists (and there are still a few), this is a sad and problematic state of affairs. But who can blame people for their media disillusionment? They have been failed by bad journalism and with nowhere else to go have turned to each other for a better alternative.

On Twitter, as the scenes on the streets of Stokes Croft reached a conclusion at around 4am on Friday, the feeling was summed up by @BrumProtestor in no uncertain terms. “Twitter has been great tonight, thanks to all #StokesCroft people tweeting,” he wrote. “Fuck you mainstream media, we don't need you anymore."

This article originally appeared at:

The Inslaw case: Dirtier than Watergate

Thursday 28 April 2011

It was described as dirtier than Watergate, and involved US government dealings with Iraq, Libya, Korea and even the late British publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell. The story is deep, dark and complex; a web of strange dealings and dubious characters, it implicates wealthy arms dealers, Israeli intelligence services, the Soviet KGB, MI5 and the CIA. But unlike Watergate, this scandal, from a particularly dark chapter in American history, has appeared in no Hollywood film and is yet to reach a satisfying conclusion.

It began in the late 1970s, when the Washington-based software developer Inslaw pioneered people-tracking technology, designed to be used by prosecutors to monitor case records. Known as the Prosecutor's Management Information System (PROMIS), the software was developed under grants from the US department of justice. The US government, as it helped fund the creation of PROMIS, had been licensed to use the software on condition that it did not modify, distribute or create derivative versions of it. The government, however, did not stick to this agreement.

Under the Ronald Reagan administration's covert intelligence initiative known as "'Follow the Money", the US National Security Agency (NSA) misappropriated PROMIS for sale to banks in 1982. The version of PROMIS sold by the NSA had been "espionage-enabled" through a back door in the programme, allowing the agency to covertly conduct real-time electronic surveillance of the flow of money to suspected terrorists and other perceived threats to US national interests.

A letter from the US department of justice in 1985, later obtained by Inslaw, documented more plans for the covert sale and distribution of the espionage-enabled version of PROMIS, this time to governments in the Middle East (which would surreptitiously allow the US to spy on foreign intelligence agencies). The letter outlined how sales of the software were to be facilitated by the late Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz and the arms dealers Adnan Khashoggi and Manucher Ghorbanifar. PROMIS should be delivered without "paperwork, customs, or delay", it stated, and all of the transactions paid for through a Swiss bank account.

In the years that followed, friends of then attorney general Edwin Meese, including a Reagan associate, Dr Earl Brian of the government consultancy firm Hadron, Inc, were reportedly allowed to sell and distribute pirated versions of PROMIS domestically and overseas. As a House judiciary committee report found in 1992, these individuals were apparently permitted to do so "for their personal financial gain and in support of the intelligence and foreign policy objectives of the United States".

Brian, who was later jailed for four years on an unrelated fraud charge in 1998, has since denied any association with the Inslaw case. According to the former arms broker and CIA "contract operative" Richard Babayan, however, he was instrumental in selling PROMIS to the governments of Iraq, Libya and Korea. When Brian was unable to market PROMIS further, it is claimed that, with the help of Rafi Eitan, a high-ranking Israeli intelligence officer, the British publisher Robert Maxwell was recruited to assist.

In a sworn affidavit, the investigative author Gordon Thomas recounts how Eitan told him Maxwell alone sold over $500m worth of espionage-enabled versions of PROMIS – including licences to the UK, Australia, South Korea, Canada and the Soviet KGB. The British counter-intelligence agency MI5, according to Eitan (who himself was an adviser to the UK secret service MI6), used PROMIS to track members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as well as Irish republican political leaders including Gerry Adams.

Inslaw alleges the US government, by selling PROMIS to other governments around the world, engaged in what equates to "multibillion-dollar theft". This claim was supported by two separate courts in 1988, which ruled that it "took, converted, stole" PROMIS from Inslaw "through trickery, fraud and deceit". Three years later, however, a court of appeal overturned both rulings on a "jurisdictional technicality" after pressure from the federal justice department.

Now more than two decades since he pioneered PROMIS, the Inslaw president Bill Hamilton today believes the story illustrates an enduring, fundamental problem at the heart of the US justice system. "[It] chronicles the continued inability of the US government to enforce federal criminal laws in cases involving national security issues, or even to render ordinary civil justice," he says. "National security appears to suspend the checks and balances built into the system of government in the United States, to the detriment of the citizens."

Some, including the US government, have tried to dismiss the Inslaw saga as conspiracy. But a message relayed to Bill Hamilton and his wife from the former chief investigator of the Senate judiciary committee, Ronald LeGrand, seems to confirm that the strange PROMIS affair – which remains unresolved – is much more than just a case of chronic paranoia.

"What Mr and Mrs Hamilton think happened, did happen," LeGrand wrote, conveying information he had received from a trusted government source. "The Inslaw case is a lot dirtier for the Department of Justice than Watergate was, in both breadth and depth. The Department of Justice has been compromised in the Inslaw case at every level."

This article appeared originally at:

Outsourcing Accountability: Privatisation and Freedom of Information

Friday 22 April 2011

Since it was introduced in 2005, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has helped expose a wide range of scandals. It has uncovered MPs exploiting their taxpayer-funded expenses system, child abuse in Northern Ireland as well as the scale of civilian deaths in the Afghan war. The Act, which is based upon the principle that the public has a “right to know” information contained in government records, has become an important means by which power can be held to account.

But freedom of information as we know it could be under serious threat. In towns and cities across the country, there are rapid, expansive changes taking place. As the government implements the biggest public spending cuts in a generation, many public services are struggling to survive. From Manchester to Devon, libraries, care homes, schools and even hospital wards are faced with a very real prospect of closure. What this means is that, almost inevitably, we are set to see control and ownership of public services being handed over to the private sector on an unprecedented scale.

The FOIA, in its current form, can only be used to gain information from public bodies “wholly funded” by public money, such as the police force or local councils. Private companies not owned by public money, even if they are providing key public services such as care provision, are not bound by the Act. Therefore, as more and more of our services become privatised, freedom of information is likely to diminish.

According to freedom of information campaigner, author and journalist Heather Brooke, this poses a serious problem for the future.

“We’re going to see increasing privatisation of what were public services, and there is a danger that because they’ll be privatised they won’t have the same accountability that they had when they were overseen by public bodies,” she says. “In principle I don’t have a problem with privatisation; my problem is when public money or policymaking or public decisions are outsourced, there’s no way for the public to hold that to account.”

The coalition government expects that as the public sector slowly disappears and the state shrinks, privately owned companies will step in to fill the void. Journalists and citizens will still be able to request information about specific private contracts if they have been paid for by a public body – such as when a council contracts a private company to provide a service – but they cannot make direct FOI requests to the company or ask for information relating to any other matters. The implications of this are potentially huge.

“It is a matter of concern where functions are being removed from public authorities to private contractors,” says Maurice Frankel, director of the long running UK Campaign for Freedom of Information. “A vast range of information is going to be lost from public access.”

Frankel predicts that if the coalition’s plans to privatise elements of the NHS go ahead, GPs will have a right to access only partial information about the performance of contracted private healthcare providers. “If you want to know how many cases of reinfection occurred in the hospital, that’s not going to be covered by the individual GP’s contract,” he says. “The solution is to make the contractors themselves public authorities under the [FOI] Act.“

Across the housing sector, similar changes have already taken place. Private companies are now responsible for building most of the UK’s “affordable homes” – a role that up until the Thatcher era was carried out predominantly by councils using public funds. Often councils will now contract private developers as part of regeneration projects. Consequently, there has been a direct impact on transparency and accountability.

Researching a story on a regeneration project in New Broughton, Salford for Big Issue in the North earlier this year, I encountered firsthand the impact of privatisation on freedom of information. After a significant statistic was quoted to me by a public relations (PR) firm employed by private developer Countryside Properties, I asked to see its origin. Following a lengthy exchange of emails, however, my request was refused. The survey was “confidential and not in the public domain,” I was told. The PR firm would allow me to see snippets of the survey, but not the full thing; they wanted to reveal the favourable statistics, but nothing else.

The government’s plans to create new ‘free schools’ – schools that can be started by businesses, parents, teachers or other groups – have also caused transparency concerns.

Jane Eades, treasurer of campaign group the Anti-Academies Alliance, was refused information about free schools after submitting an FOI request to the Department for Education last year.She believes part of the problem is that a charity called the New Schools Network (NSN) has been set up to help fund free schools. The NSN has received £500,000 from the government, and anyone wishing to set up a school can apply to it for funding. But as it is a charity, it is exempt from the FOIA.

“The Government have been very cunning in the way they have set up the free schools process,” Eades says. “Unless the group [the NSA] publicise what they are doing, there is no local consultation or information. In other words, the whole deal seems to be very secretive.”

Such instances could become commonplace if privatisation is to spread across the public sector. Yet prime minister David Cameron maintains that the coalition government aspires to become “one of the most transparent governments in the world”. In recent weeks, for instance, the government has revealed plans to somewhat strengthen and widen the powers of the FOIA. Under the changes proposed in the new Protection of Freedoms Bill, some organisations previously exempt from freedom of information requests would be included. Bodies performing “functions of a public nature” such as the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the Advertising Standards Authority are among those who would be made to adhere to FOI legislation.

Freedom of information campaigners have welcomed these changes; however, although the Freedoms Bill widens the scope of the FOIA, it still fails to address the issue of privatisation. While on the one hand the government is strengthening the ability of citizens to gain information from public bodies, on the other, by privatising public services, they are reducing the amount of information that is freely available. Whether intentionally or not, the coalition is outsourcing accountability.

According to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the arm of government responsible for freedom of information policy, the FOIA will soon be reviewed to ensure it remains an effective means by which people hold the government to account. But the speed and scale of the government’s rapidly implemented privatisation agenda seems to have already caught the MoJ off-guard.

When questioned about the potentially regressive impact of privatisation on freedom of information, an MoJ spokesperson responded: “We have to strike a balance between our commitment to increasing transparency and that of reducing the regulatory burden on business. We do not consider it necessary to extend the Act to bodies that provide public services under contract at present.”

Meanwhile, the Information Commissioners Office – the independent authority set up to “uphold information rights in the public interest” – pointed to a statement made by Commissioner Christopher Graham in January.

“It would be perverse if by going for alternative provision of services – privatisation, contracting out, looking at new and imaginative alternative ways of delivering public services – we suddenly found that we are giving important public functions to authorities that are not within the FOI Act and they became less accountable," Graham said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper. “We've got to think through the implications; we can't be so starry-eyed that we can't see the downside. There is a potential for services to become less transparent and less accountable.”

For Brooke, who won a landmark High Court judgement in 2008 forcing the disclosure of MPs expenses, the only real solution is to expand the provisions of the FOIA further. “What I would like to see is a change in the Freedom of Information Act,” she says.

“A better situation would be if it was about the criteria, about how much funding does that organisation receive from the public or are they providing a public service. If they are doing one of those two things then they should fall under the purview of being a public body for the purposes of the FOIA. We’ve definitely got to see some kind of change to the law."

This article appeared originally in Issue No.871 of Big Issue in the North.

'It was about the potential slaughter of citizens'

Thursday 14 April 2011

Katharine Gun was 29 years old when the government tried to prosecute her for breaching the Official Secrets Act. It was early 2003, and both Britain and America were on the road to war with Iraq. Amid since-discredited claims that Iraq was allegedly producing biological weapons, the British prime minister, Tony Blair, and the US president, George W Bush, met at the White House. That same day, 31 January 2003, an email passed across Gun's desk at her office in Cheltenham, where she worked as a translator for the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the intelligence agency.

The email shocked her. From the US National Security Agency (NSA), it detailed US plans to illegally bug the offices of six UN member states in the lead-up to the Iraq war. Its intention was clear – it asked for British help in the ploy, to give US policymakers "the edge" in swaying opinion in favour of the war. This was a direct attempt to undermine democratic process, Gun felt, and she had to do something about it.

Eight years on and now a mother, she recalls her thoughts that day. "I was particularly concerned about the reason behind the bugging, because it was in order to facilitate an invasion in Iraq," she says. "It was about the potential slaughter of citizens and the disruption and destruction of a country which was already practically on its knees. I felt that the public really needed to know about that."

She printed off a copy and stewed on it for a while, before passing it on to a friend with ties to journalists. Not long later, the story appeared on the front page of the Observer, two weeks before the Iraq invasion. Gun knew she was in for trouble when she saw the headline one quiet Sunday at her local shop. It read: "Revealed: US dirty tricks to win vote on Iraq war".

A full-blown government investigation ensued, and it wasn't long before Gun cracked under pressure and admitted to the leak. She was promptly arrested and charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act. But after several high-profile court visits, the charges were dropped when the prosecution declined to give evidence.

Yet even after clearing her name and moving far away from the GCHQ heartland in Cheltenham, Gun found it hard to leave her past behind as she took up new career in teaching. "It was quite difficult at first to let go of that name tag that was applied to me," she says, "and it did take quite a while – maybe two years – before I got back into my own skin."

Would she do it again if faced with the same choice today? "That is a difficult question," she replies. "Before I had a child my answer was always, 'Yes, I would do it again,' but when you have a family and a child to think about, then it does put a slightly different twist on the whole issue . . . You've got to weigh up your decisions."

Now a full-time mother, Gun remains vocal in her support for the principles behind whistleblowing. In December, she signed a statement in support of WikiLeaks along with the Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg and other prominent former whistleblowers.

She also expresses her alarm at the treatment of Bradley Manning, the 23-year-old US soldier accused of leaking thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. Manning has been held in solitary confinement for more than 300 days, in conditions Amnesty International has described as "inhumane" and "repressive".

"It's atrocious that in a so-called democracy a soldier serving in the US army is facing that sort of treatment, which, I believe, is against any proper legal jurisdiction," says Gun. "It just goes to show the state of America – how fearful they are of losing their grip on absolute power in the global world."

The sheer volume of documents Manning is alleged to have leaked – over 700,000 – would have been inconceivable back in 2003, the year Gun released her solitary email to the world.

Since then, technology has allowed for leaking on an industrial scale, like never before. At the same time governments have evolved new ways of spying on each other. Last November, it was revealed – in a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, no less – that the US had plotted secretly to illegally obtain biometric data (including iris scans, fingerprints and DNA) as well as credit-card information from the UN leadership.

The revelation caused a sensation, but for Gun it was a familiar story that hardly came as a surprise.

"That's just the way of the world," she says. "The whole Big Brother vision of the world is looming large . . . Until people open their eyes and realise what it means to start relinquishing these things, it'll be too late."

This article originally appeared at:

To read about more by me on prominent modern-day whistleblowers, click here and here. To read my report on a recent debate in London about whistleblowing featuring WikiLeaks' Julian Assange, click here (part I) and here (part II).

Teargas and Corpses: a Photographer's Journey to Libya and Bahrain

Sunday 3 April 2011

It was during the afternoon of February 14 that Bahraini police opened fire on a funeral procession, killing one and injuring scores of others. As a ripple of unrest spread from across North Africa to the Middle East, authorities in Bahrain were anxious to repress any prospect of revolution. Just a few weeks earlier, Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had been removed from 23 years in power after 28 days of protests. Meanwhile Egyptian protesters, taking inspiration from events in Tunisia, had also managed to force their own president, Hosni Mubarak, to reluctantly resign after 17 days of massive demonstrations and strike action.

In London, freelance photographer and student Michael Graae watched the events in Bahrain unfold. He was on his way to class at the London College of Communication when news broke that riot police had attacked anti-government demonstrators gathered in the capital city Manama. Just three days after the funeral shooting, it seemed like events were beginning to spiral out of control. In the latest incident, it was reported that police had fired live rounds and rubber bullets into thousands of anti-government protesters at Pearl Roundabout in the north west of the city. Protesters had been trampled and suffocated amid clouds of teargas as tanks and armoured vehicles attempted to disperse crowds. At least four people reportedly lost their lives, including a 2-year-old girl who was struck by several bullets as she tried to flee the scene with her parents.

Upon hearing about the violence, 21-year-old Graae made an almost instant decision to travel to Bahrain to document what was happening. He consulted his tutor and asked for some time off, before promptly booking flights and a hotel. Only a few hours later he was on his way to Heathrow; the next morning he woke up bleary-eyed in Manama.

At the airport it wasn’t long before he encountered his first problem. After reading reports of journalists being detained by Bahraini authorities, he had decided to conceal his camera equipment in his suitcase. Making it swiftly through the arrivals lounge, when he reached customs his bag was x-rayed. The authorities immediately noticed his camera and pulled him aside for questioning. Graae tried to convince them he was a student, certainly not a journalist; however, the suspicious officials never bought a word of it. They confiscated all of his equipment, leaving him only with his laptop and clothes.

Cameraless but now in Bahrain, Graae proceeded to make some emergency phone calls. Luckily, he was quickly able to reach a friend living in New York who helped him reach a fellow journalist working in Manama. Within a few hours he had made contact and was eventually able to borrow a small single lens camera.

The unrest in the city was continuing to mount in the wake of the previous day’s violence. Pearl Roundabout had since become the focal point for demonstrators, who continued to gather in the area despite repeated crackdowns from authorities. The morning Graae arrived there had been more clashes between police and protesters. Like earlier in the week, live ammunition had again been fired into crowds of unarmed civilians.

After taking photographs of a funeral in Manama for one of the protesters killed in the unrest, Graae visited Pearl Roundabout before being taken to a nearby hospital where he seen for the first time the scale of the casualties. Crammed full of injured people, the atmosphere in the hospital was chaotic. Graae was allowed total access and tried to keep out of the way as he watched ambulance after ambulance arrive with more injured civilians. Hours later, instead of returning to his hotel, he decided that rather than chance missing any action the best thing to do would be to sleep in the hospital. He was given pillows by a doctor and bedded down for the night on the floor of the hospital’s blood bank.

The following day, after leaving the hospital, Graae had his first encounter with teargas. Walking alongside protesters to Pearl Roundabout, police launched an attack. They bombarded the crowds with a mass of teargas combined with rubber bullets and occasional live rounds. Panic ensued and a protester handed Graae an onion, telling him to rub his face with it to stave off the effects of the gas. His nose and eyes were burning as he turned to photograph a crowd of demonstrators running from police. “It felt almost like someone was almost tightening around my windpipe,” he says. “I could breathe but it was tough.”

Soon after, he managed to escape by getting a lift on the back of a pickup truck. Empty teargas canisters and rubber bullet cartridges littered the streets, and all of those seen by Graae were either manufactured in America or Britain. One of his photographs shows teargas canisters bearing the name Non-Lethal Technologies – a Pennsylvania based company that specialises in “riot control munitions”. But as Graae was well aware, teargas had already proven itself potentially lethal. During the Tunisian uprising in January, a 32-year-old French photographer, Lucas Dolega, was killed when he was shot in the head at close range by a teargas canister.

Returning back to the hospital, streams of injured demonstrators continued to arrive. Many had been caught up in the same incident as Graae, though unlike him they had not managed to dodge the bullets. Despite the government continuing to claim they were not using live rounds, several people arrived with gunshot wounds. Graae photographed one man in intensive care, his eyes glazed with shock and his chest blooded and punctured by pellets from a shotgun. The non-lethal weapons, too, had caused substantial damage. One demonstrator, whose leg veins had been torn apart by a rubber bullet, died from complications resulting from his injuries later that night.

After two consecutive evenings sleeping on the floor of the hospital’s blood bank, Graae relocated to a tent near a makeshift media centre near Pearl Roundabout. One of his first observations was that, unlike the protesters in both Tunisia and Egypt, the people of Bahrain were slow to mobilise technology. While the generator-powered media centre had satellite TV as well as internet access, organisers never immediately harnessed the power of tools like Twitter and Facebook as had their counterparts. Graae was surprised when one asked him how to use Twitter. “I thought they would’ve had it set up long ago, but they hadn’t,” he says. “So I told him: ‘you’ve gotta make a Twitter account and you start tweeting."

By the time Graae left the camp, the organisers had figured out how to tweet and were also blogging frequently. Things had begun to calm down in Bahrain at the time. Thousands gathered peacefully at Pearl Roundabout after the government issued orders for military and police forces to withdraw from the capital. Amid the crowds, Graae met another lone freelance, Alex, and hatched a plan to head west to Libya.

Now February 22, the Libyan unrest was still in its early stages but was beginning to rapidly escalate. The previous day, Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi had ordered warplanes and attack helicopters to launch air strikes on protesters. There were reports of snipers firing into unarmed crowds, and Col. Gaddafi’s son, Saif, gave a live interview in which he blamed the foreign media for trying to “trick” the Libyan people.

The situation was tense and Graae’s journey gruelling. There was no way to fly in to Libya. Foreign journalists were banned from the country, and the runways at the main airport in Benghazi – the focal point of the unrest – had been destroyed by rebels in a bid to prevent Gaddafi flying in mercenaries. The only way in was by car or bus. Graae collected his confiscated camera equipment from Bahrain airport and flew 1200 miles north west to Cairo where he met Alex, who had arrived on a separate flight. The two then embarked on a 400 mile, nine hour car trip to the Libyan border, accompanied by a Libyan doctor returning to his wife and children after years of exile in Ireland.

Chaotic but friendly scenes greeted them as they approached the border. Rebel forces holding rifles welcomed the journalists with peace signs and cheering. Graae, who had been ready to bribe his way in to the country if necessary, was amazed that he was never even asked to show his passport upon entry. He simply wrote his name, nationality and passport number on a form

Finally arriving in Benghazi five hours later, people on the streets were in triumphant spirits. While clashes continued to take place between rebels and pro-Gaddafi forces 600 miles west in capital city Tripoli, Benghazi had been ‘liberated’ after Libyan soldiers were reported to have defected. The roads were clogged with cars, people were honking their horns and those with guns were firing them in the air in celebration. “It was a jubilant mood, everyone was carefree,” says Graae. “No one thought they were going to get bombed or arrested or anything of the sort.”

But the atmosphere was short lived. Reports filtered through of brutal violence in Gaddafi’s Tripoli stronghold, leading to former British foreign minister David Owen calling for an immediate intervention. Thousands of mercenaries were believed to have been flown in from other countries, indiscriminately slaying protesters on the streets and attacking people in their own homes. Horrifying videos appeared on YouTube depicting plain clothes men shooting dead peaceful demonstrators. One eye witness report from website February 17 Voices described how pro-Gaddafi forces had entered a hospital in the city and opened fire on doctors and the injured.

Among the first of the western press to arrive in Benghazi, Graae immediately noted how a sense of paranoia preoccupied rebels in the city. There were rumours that all phone calls were being listened to by Gaddafi forces, and that the 68-year-old dictator had somehow routed all internet connections through his headquarters in Tripoli, where he had a kill switch that could turn off the power at any moment. The paranoia quickly spread. If they had to use phones to communicate, the journalists would speak in codes and would not give names or locations over the phone for fear of being traced. “You would go off for an hour and people would have to hope that you came back because no one could contact you when you were gone,” says Graae.

Yet their fears were far from unfounded. Libyan authorities had successfully been jamming the broadcaster Al Jazeera’s signal for days and every time Graae tried to make an international phone call he had severe difficulty. Luckily, tech savvy groups of young Libyans had set up makeshift internet connections using equipment they had smuggled in to the country from Egypt and Tunisia. It was with their help that Graae was able to send his photographs back to his agency in London.

As violence spread to other cities in Libya, Gaddafi claimed the rebels had consumed hallucinogenic drugs and were operating under the direction of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. Meanwhile, in Benghazi, Graae visited a former Gaddafi palace that had been torched during a battle a few days before he arrived. The grounds of the palace compound had been dug up by local people looking for underground prisons. Some dug with their hands, others with stones or anything else they could find. Eventually machinery was brought in to excavate the ground, tearing through pipes and leaving huge craters. Several corpses were later found and four people discovered alive – one of whom had apparently been missing for four years.

Graae was taken through a thick door and a labyrinth of tunnels to be shown some of the prison cells in the compound by a handful of rebels. It was dark and there were no lights, the walls charred from the fire that had ravaged the palace in the days before. “You could tell people had just run through and set fire to the whole thing because they hated it so much,” says Graae, who felt slightly uneasy in the bunker. “Even if there’s only loyal people around you, you never know. There was only one way in and one way out, and if someone is to snatch you, then, well, that’s it.”

The atmosphere in Benghazi remained somewhat calm. But Graae was reminded of the scale of the violence that had preceded his arrival when he later visited the city’s Al-Jalah hospital. There was not enough space in the hospital to accommodate the amount of those needing medical assistance, so waiting rooms had been turned into makeshift operating theatres. And while basic healthcare is provided free in Libya, even in normal circumstances hospitals are understaffed and facilities limited. The situation was dire. With scarcely a bed left, the hospital was teeming with those who had been brutalised at the hands of Gaddafi’s mercenaries.

Graae was asked if he wanted to visit the hospital’s morgue and felt it was his obligation to say yes. “Someone had to document it,” he says. With his camera round his neck he was taken to a small building at the rear of the hospital. As he entered through a heavy green door he was suddenly overwhelmed by an awful smell. The air was thick with a stench of death. In a room to his left, corpses lay on the floor in body bags, most of which were damaged beyond recognition. The walls were lined with large refrigerators, each containing a body – some demonstrators, others mercenaries. While a doctor pointed out gunshot wounds on the corpses, Graae tried to distance himself psychologically from what he was being shown. “It was horrible, absolutely horrible,” he says. “I couldn’t even recognise the people I saw. They had been shot to the point that you couldn’t recognise their face, or burnt to the point that you could barely tell that it was a body except for the fact that you could see teeth.”

Not long later, Graae’s visit to Libya would come to an abrupt end. Having spent a total of nine days travelling across north Africa, an encounter with heavily armed Gaddafi militia stopped him in his tracks. Heading west on a search for territory not yet covered by western media, Graae and his accomplice Alex were stopped at a checkpoint near oil fields, ten miles from the small town of Bishr. A 30-strong unit of Gaddafi soldiers approached them, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, rocket propelled grenade launchers and wearing heavy body armour. “Sahafiy? … Sahafiy? … Sahafiy?” the soldiers repeated. Graae and Alex pleaded ignorance, pretending they did not know ‘Sahafiy’ is Arabic for ‘journalist’. They feared if they acknowledged they were from the western press they would be detained – or worse. “You could tell that if they had to have pulled the trigger they would have done it in a heartbeat,” says Graae.

The soldiers rigorously searched their vehicle, looking underneath seats and inside the boot. They took everything the two journalists had between them. Cameras, laptops, even memory cards. There was nothing the pair could do in response; they had no choice but to accept their fate, and so were forced to turn back to Benghazi. The most important thing, after all, was that they had escaped with their lives.

Slightly shaken, his equipment gone and with no means to get another camera, Graae decided he would have to return to London. He and Alex embarked on a long overnight drive to Cairo, intent on getting the first flight home. At 3am they stopped for coffee at a roadside shisha bar to keep themselves awake. On the television inside a state news channel was replaying a Gaddafi speech from earlier that day, in which the volatile leader decried western journalists as agents of Al Qaeda.

Alex, who had purchased a copy of Gaddafi’s infamous Green Book of political philosophy as a souvenir, stood up and begun mimicking the colonel. Sympathetic to the Libyan rebels, the men in the bar laughed and cheered loudly. Then, in a sudden release of frustration, Alex took a lighter to his book and set it on fire. It was a final symbolic act, greeted with raucous applause from the locals. As the pair left, they approached the bar’s owner to settle the bill for their coffee. He wouldn’t let them pay. “That was worth a million dinars,” he told them. “Thank you!”

Back in London days later, Graae walked the bustling streets for the first time since his return and felt shell-shocked. He was devastated about the loss of his camera equipment, though glad to be back safe and in good health after coming face to face with Gaddafi’s militia. Several journalists were detained by Gaddafi forces amid the unrest – Graae was lucky to get away. Watching closely as violence in both Libya and Bahrain continued to escalate, he returned to university as NATO announced they would impose a no-fly zone across Libya in order to quell civilian killings. “Even now I still look on TV and see the images and think, 'I can’t believe I was there,'” he says. “But I was."

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