Peter Greste is a journalist who needs no introduction, having worked for some of the most prestigious media organisations, covering big stories in dangerous locations.
However it was his shock arrest in Egypt and subsequent imprisonment for 400 days for which he is most renowned, along with his relentless and ongoing fight for press freedom.
When Greste was arrested at Cairo’s Marriot Hotel in December 2013 while filling in for an Al Jazeera colleague over the Christmas period, he was dumbfounded; he knew he had done nothing wrong. “Routine, vanilla journalism” is how he described it.
Little did he know he would be accused of being a “propagandist to terrorism” and sentenced to seven years’ prison, despite no evidence to back up the prosecution’s case.
THE CHARGES AGAINST GRESTE:
– Aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation
– Being a member of a terrorist organisation
– Financing a terrorist organisation
– Broadcasting false news to undermine national security
“For a long time I really struggled with the gap of the allegations of terrorism and the reality of what we were doing, which was mundane journalism,” Greste said.
“And when I saw what was taking place in court (during the trial) I realised … it didn’t matter what the evidence was, they were going to come after us regardless.
“We were on trial not because of what we’d done but of what we had come to represent – and that was press freedom.”
It was over 20 years ago, while working in Afghanistan, that Greste realised the responsibility of being a journalist in a war torn country.
As one of only three foreign reporters based in the city of Kabul, Greste was thrown right into the thick of some of the fiercest fighting in the Middle East, with the task of interviewing members of warring factions wrestling for control of the country, including the Taliban. With most of the country’s own radio stations being used as propaganda outlets for the factions, BBC World and The Voice of America were the only two stations broadcasting objectively.
“We realised that we (the BBC) had great influence over not only the world’s understanding of Afghanistan, but also Afghanistan’s understanding of itself … It was both gratifying, but also quite scary, because you absolutely had to get it right,” Greste said.
In his recently released book, The First Casualty, Greste discusses how journalists have become weapons for both sides in the “War on Terror”, used as pawns to spin the facts to suit the agenda of either side, and in some of the most dire cases, using the deaths of journalists as propaganda tools. James Foley and Steven Sotloff are the two names that usually come to mind, but it was Greste’s time in Somalia in 2005 that brought him closest to this front line, when his BBC colleague and producer, Kate Peyton, was shot and killed outside their Mogadishu hotel.
Tragedies like this made Greste even more determined to stick to his principles upon his arrest in prison, despite the “Kafkaesque” trial surrounding him. In a system so corrupt and determined to stamp out any reporting that went against the government narrative, Greste and his colleagues were merely seen as collateral damage.
He argues that the war on journalism has spread beyond the borders of the Middle East into Western democracies, particularly in the form of President Donald Trump, who Greste believes uses similar techniques to silence the media as some of the world’s worst despots.
“The kind of techniques that those dictators and autocrats use to suppress the media, to break public trust in the media, to use legal tools to marginalise and suppress the media, to shut the media out, all those tools that I’ve seen in my work … are the kind of techniques that Donald Trump is applying. He’s using their playbook.”
Image: Greste says his book is less memoir, more battle of ideas
The war on terror must be fought, but Greste believes the West’s approach is having an adverse effect on press freedom. He claims the government’s actions to stop terror has led to a weakening of the media’s ability to hold governments to account.
“When [Australia] introduces metadata legislation that makes it almost impossible for journalists to protect our sources, I think what we’re seeing happening is a chipping away of the foundations of the system that has made us one of the most peaceable, stable and prosperous places on the planet in the first place,” Greste said.
“We’re actually damaging the system in trying to protect it, and I think there’s something really screwed up about that.”
As a journalist, Greste and his colleagues know the risks they must take to preserve the integrity of journalism. And whether it be interviewing a Taliban fighter, Somali rebels or a western politician, he has always taken the freedom of the press and his duty as a journalist to give nothing but the hard truth as seriously as his own freedom.
“I believe in it (the future of journalism), absolutely believe in it. We desperately need great journalism,” Greste said.
“And we will figure it out, I’m not quite sure what it will look like, but we will get there I’m sure.” – Story by Max Gay, video by Genevieve Smith
To watch the six-part video interview with Peter Greste at Macleay, visit the Hatch YouTube Channel.
Originally featured on Hatch, Macleay College's student run news site.