An old name breathes fresh life into a world of turmoil and the next generation of journalists
For the past 10 years, Globe and Mail European columnist Eric Reguly has had a front row seat to some of the most significant stories of modern times. He has covered the Arab Spring in Tunisia, the Athens riots and the Euro Zone crisis, to name a few. His father was an award winning war correspondent during the 1950s and ’60s, which helped pave the way for a young Reguly. Born in Vancouver and launching his career at Alberta Report magazine, Reguly has also reported for the Financial Post and the now-defunct Financial Times.
What are some situations where you found yourself in danger as a journalist?
In February 2012, I was covering the riots in Athens. There were mass protests and general strikes all the time. In one riot in Syntagma Square, there were tens of thousands of people. Cops were everywhere, dressed like gladiators with guns, stun grenades and tear gas. This was the night when all hell broke loose, and 40 buildings burned around me. It was like a Napalm strike. The city was on fire.
Your father, Robert Reguly, was a correspondent for the Toronto Star and Toronto Telegram. What’s the best advice he gave you?
He told me, “When you are in a situation you think can turn into a riot, remember it can go from peaceful to violent, very quickly. Always pick your escape route.”
What escape route did you choose during the Athens riots?
A Greek guy who was watching me asked, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m a Canadian journalist” and he said, “You should be careful because this place is going to explode in a few minutes.”
He gave me a good luck charm: a piece of silver with a cross and an anchor. I absentmindedly put it in my pocket. I basically forgot about it because things were happening all around me.
Later, I super-glued it to my watch and it hasn’t left me ever since. After this, anarchists literally started picking up rocks and oranges off the trees and throwing them at the cops. The cops were sitting there like robots, just staring. All of a sudden they had enough of being taunted and the place was full of tear gas. They started launching stun grenades and one exploded pretty close to me. I lost some hearing in my ear. People were getting trampled. I don’t think anyone died, maybe one person, but you have to just keep on moving. You’re going in this big square, it’s funneling into quite narrow side streets, the tear gas is going and the anarchists are fighting back with big steel poles smashing the marble fronts of hotels to get pieces to throw back.
I went up to the balcony of my hotel room and watched the street battles. I was tweeting until my batteries went dead. It was thrilling. After I filed my story, I went to a bar with a bunch of other journalists and we were just laughing. It was so much fun.
So the good luck charm worked?
It’s a funny story. About two years later, I was in a restaurant in a posh part of town in London, England. My waiter happened to be Greek, and saw the symbol on my watch, and said, “Oh my god, where did you get that?” He said it was the symbol of one of the local mafia gangs in Athens. So the guy who gave it to me was obviously one of the local mafiosi. And he might have been one of the instigators.
You’re one of the only Canadian journalists to have interviewed and taken photos of a human trafficker in Tunisia. How did you find him?
Through contacts. Friends of friends. This was really scary and it could have gone wrong. My fixer and I flew from Tunis to the island of Djerba. We stupidly, and I can’t believe I did this, landed at night in Djerba and rented a car to cross the bridge into the mainland into Southern Tunisia, which is lawless. There are gun runners, traffickers, refugees, migrants, corrupt police. At that time there were terrorist attacks in Libya. So we’re driving along at night, and every few kilometers, there is a checkpoint. But you don’t know if the soldiers and police at the checkpoints are real, or kidnappers.
We go into this checkpoint at 10 or 11 at night, driving across the desert, and a guy sticks a gun in my face and says, “Who the fuck are you?” And I thought OK, this will end badly. Either I’m going to lose all my money and they’re going to take and sell our passports, or they will kidnap us, maybe attack my fixer, or rape her. I just didn’t imagine any good situation at all.
We went through three or four checkpoints and it was pretty aggressive, but they were real soldiers and real police. Not one of them ended up asking for bribes. But that was luck. It could have been very ugly.
What advice do you have for young journalists looking to get into foreign correspondence?
If you are young, take a big risk. Find a spot that is about to become a hotspot and just freelance the hell out of it. Print, TV, radio, social media, photography. Every platform you can imagine for as many people as possible. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a war, but there is a always a region in the world where there is just tumultuous change.
Where would that be now?
I think Cuba is going to get interesting [with Raul Castro’s resignation]. What’s going to happen now? Will it turn into the 51st state? Revolution? I don’t know. It’ll be interesting. The question is timing. Right? Burma would be interesting if you could get in there.
South Africa is briefly interesting again, but it’s not going to last. Saudi Arabia, you’ve got Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince. He’s 32 years old and he’s fighting a war in Yemen, which is not going in his favour. It’s a disaster. But he’s triggering the economic and social revolution there. He’s allowing women to drive: he is, for the first time, opening up movie theatres. He’s got to get off the oil economy. He’s got to develop an entrepreneurial class. There’s huge appetite for that anywhere in Europe or North America.