International correspondent shares his war stories

08/29/2014 8:01 AM |
Aquebogue native Mike Giglio has spent the past several years as an international reporter, often sent into war-torn regions to cover the news. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

Aquebogue native Mike Giglio has spent the past several years as an international reporter, often sent into war-torn regions to cover the news. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

Mike Giglio remembers covering Riverhead Town Board meetings in 2006 for the now-defunct Traveler Watchman newspaper.

He was still in college at the time and would watch other reporters, “trying to figure out how to be [one myself],” he recalled.

“I was always nervous about talking to people at the time,” he said in interview last Thursday.

Nowadays, Mr. Giglio covers international news in places like Ukraine, Egypt and Iraq — and if he’s nervous, it often is about things a little more scary than talking to people.

The 30-year-old former Aquebogue resident is an international correspondent for the news website and, before that, had the same job for Newsweek and its online site, The Daily Beast.

He’s covered stories in Ukraine, Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq and London and, on at least two occasions, he’s become part of the story.

In August 2013, Mr. Giglio was one of several journalists who were arrested and beaten by police in Cairo, Egypt, and in May of this year, he was among a group of journalists who were held hostage by pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine.

He currently lives in Istanbul, Turkey. He says he enjoys covering news, even though most of the time his office is a war zone.

“It’s nice for now,” he said. “I don’t know how long I can do it for, but it’s interesting. The danger part is stressful, but also, being in the middle of breaking news stories is stressful.”

How close does he actually get to gunfire?

“I try not to get too close,” he said. “I don’t really need to speak to anybody that close. I call it the ‘second front line.’ I try not to go where people are actively shooting, so I stay one step behind them and speak to the soldiers there.”

But sometimes, he said, that’s not possible.

“In Egypt, for instance, there’s no such thing,” he said. “When I got arrested, I was actually standing behind the police as they were firing into the crowd. They let me [stand there] about an hour. I gave them my water. I was actually trying to make friends with them, but then the real heavies came and they realized that was a bad idea and that they should’ve arrested me.”

In Egypt, while still working for Newsweek, Mr. Giglio was detained by police while covering protests in Cairo when Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown.

Mr. Giglio, who wrote a first-person account of his ordeal for Buzzfeed, estimated that about 60 protesters were killed, as was a cameraman for British Sky News.

Egyptian police surrounded him, took his cell phone, his ID and his laptop. When he refused to give up the password for the laptop, they began punching and slapping him in the head. He eventually typed in the password. He did not get the laptop back, or any of the other items taken from him.

After about five hours, he was released. He was never told what he was arrested for, other than being a journalist.

“The government decided they didn’t want any journalists around,” he said.

In Ukraine in May of this year, Mr. Giglio said he was trying to pass through some rebel checkpoints to get to where the fighting was.

“And one of them decided that I was a spy, maybe, and arrested me. This was at the same time, at a bunch of different checkpoints, they were arresting a bunch of journalists. It was me, a CBS reporter and a Sky News crew from Britain. They kept me for five hours. They blindfolded us and they put us in a shack. They were beating one of the guys because they thought he was American, and then they thought he was lying, so I was worried because I’m clearly American, but they didn’t hit me or anything.”

The journalists were released after about three hours and were even served tea by their captors.

Mr. Giglio said there are times when he’s afraid covering war zones, but he joked that he’s “afraid to even walk down the street [back home], afraid that a dog is going to bite me.”

Mr. Giglio — son of Mike Giglio of Baiting Hollow and Donna Finnigan of Aquebogue, and stepson of Riverhead Councilwoman Jodi Giglio — began working at Newsweek in 2010 after a friend who worked there urged him to send in stories.

“Finally, they had a low-level opening and they asked me to apply for it,” he said.” When I started I had to do half secretarial work and I could pretend to be on the front desk, basically.”

After about six months, he became a full-time reporter and was sent to work in London.

He recently switched to Buzzfeed after Newsweek, which became an online-only publication in 2013, began cutting its travel budget. Buzzfeed, he said, has been trying to build its foreign news desk and isn’t opposed to sending reporters on dangerous trips.

“Mostly, I’m in the Arab world, and there’s always a certain level of resentment to Americans, but they never show it to a guest,” Mr. Giglio said. “I spoke to somebody on the phone the other day from Al Qaeda and they make it a point to be courteous. They are genuinely curious and they have a culture of hospitality. They really are always nice to me and always welcoming.”

Often, he said, people in the Arab world end up asking him questions.

“You can never convince people you’re not a spy,” he said. “You just try to be polite to them. Some people expect any journalist to be a spy, especially where there are not a lot of Westerners otherwise. But usually, they get it that you’re a journalist.”

And how do you make contacts with rebels and terrorists?

“In the Ukraine, I would go to the protests, and they were amazed than an American would print their quotes,” he said. “They are so suspicious because of the Russian media, and they thought that since I am an American, I’m against them and I’m not going to print what they say.

“So I would write the article that had their quotes in it and I would send it to them and they gradually realized I’m not lying.”

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