Podcast: You can't silence me

23 April 2018

In all his years reporting from war-torn regions across the world, Peter Greste never imagined he would become the story. But after a dramatic arrest and 400 days in prison in Egypt on trumped-up terror charges, he unwittingly became the face of media freedom around the world. In this episode, Greste reveals how he survived prison, why freedom of the press is so important, and discusses his new role at UQ’s School of Communication and Arts.

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Transcript

Peter Greste: We were accused of aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation, being members of a terrorist organisation, financing a terrorist organisation. These were really, really serious charges, like, some of them carried the death penalty. You can’t silence me. In fact, if anything you’ve given me a platform, you’ve given me microphones, you’ve actually made my voice louder and dammit I’m going to keep using that platform.

Belinda McDougall: Welcome to UQ ChangeMakers, a podcast series where we interview some of the most influential and inspiring members of the UQ community. My name is Belinda McDougall.

Katie Rowney: And I’m Katie Rowney. In this episode we chat with award-winning journalist Peter Greste.

Belinda: Peter made international headlines in late 2013 when he and fellow Al Jazeera journalists were arrested on trumped up terrorism charges in Egypt. After 400 days in prison, Peter is now an advocate for media freedom and earlier this year joined UQ’s School of Communication and Arts as the UNESCO Chair of Journalism and Communication. Peter welcome.

Peter: Great to be here.

Belinda: Now your work as a foreign correspondent has seen you travel to the UK, Europe, Mexico, Afghanistan, South Africa and more. Why did you first get involved in journalism and what aspect of the job has kept you coming back for more?

Peter: It wasn’t the writing, I kind of hated writing really I know that when I was at, at um [university] I nearly gave up the whole journalism degree thing because I remember a friend of mine who I had seen after a few years, an old school friend, and she asked me what I was doing and I said I was I was um studying journalism and she just went, “Oh my god endless English assignments for the rest of your life!” I thought god she’s right! It was, it was, it was terrible. Um, no the thing that always, the thing that I loved about this job is the fact that it’s a licence to indulge a curiosity. It’s a licence to stick your nose into other people’s business. Um, it’s an excuse to explore the world, to find things out. And that really answers the second part of your question, that’s what keeps me coming back. You know, this is an incredibly fascinating, wonderful, infuriating, exasperating world that we live in and my job over the years has been to travel all over that world, um I’ve been to almost 100 countries at last count um for my work, and you know, explore them in great depth and great detail and a level that nobody as a tourist ever gets to do and so it’s been fantastic--fantastically privileged existence in that respect.

Belinda: Can you name your favourite [Peter: Oh gosh yeah this is…] country or your favourite story over those years as a foreign correspondent?

Peter: It’s you know, favourite it’s a, it’s a really difficult word because it implies positive and if I said that my favourite country was Afghanistan um, people’s eyes tend to, eyebrows tend to rise up. Um but it, I loved it because it was a massive adventure for me, it was my first, uh well my second experience of war – I’d spent quite a bit of time in Yugoslavia – but it was the first time when I had a real responsibility as a journalist, I was the BBC and Reuters correspondent covering Afghanistan. And it was back in 1995, when journalists were seen as legitimate players on the battlefield, we were seen as legitimate observers, we had a role that everybody understood and accepted which meant that we weren’t targets in the conflict. Of course it was always a dangerous place, but we were very careful – we were scrupulously careful – about maintaining our professional independence, about crossing the frontlines whenever it was, whenever it was possible to do so. So that we were able to make both sides understand that we exercised that right of independence and neutrality as reporters. And it was an experience which taught me more about myself, but also my job, my career, than I think any other place before or since. It was an incredibly rich learning experience, but also, I don’t know, there’s something about Afghanistan that just gets under your skin. It’s a stunningly beautiful place in a way that gets you in the pit of your stomach, it’s not pretty – you never put images of Afghanistan on a Christmas card – but it is beautiful in a really raw, vital sense of the word. Um, and the people really are extraordinary. 

Katie: You talked about how your role as a foreign correspondent was respected by both sides in a conflict, do you feel like that role has changed over the years?

Peter: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. And in fact Afghanistan is a really good way of understanding that change. Because as I said, back in 1995 both sides accepted us, um and crucially the other side or the opposition at that point was in fact the Taliban. An organisation that was really emerged out of Afghanistan’s own frustration, Afghan people’s own frustration with the warlords that were tearing the country apart. And of course it was always a radical organisation, radical Islamist organisation, but again even though they didn’t necessarily understand our theology, didn’t necessarily agree with our politics – just as we didn’t necessarily understand or agree with them – they still accepted us as legitimate players on the battlefield. But if we fast forward--and also governments were very keen for us to report because they also recognised the value in really good understanding of what was taking place in Afghanistan, what was driving the Taliban, what were the motives behind their organisation, what were their strategies, what were they thinking of what they’re trying to achieve. Um, but if we fast forward to 2001, when I went back into Afghanistan after 9/11 and everything had changed at that point. For the first time we saw the governments dropping bombs on, on um, journalists. The Americans dropped a bomb on the Al Jazeera Bureau in Kabul at the time, um and the Taliban started attacking journalists, specifically because they were journalists, these weren’t just incidental casualties. There was one convoy that was carrying an Australian cameraman Harry Burton, who worked for Reuters, and Maria Grazia Cutuli who was a very close friend of mine and a wonderful Italian journalist, and they were travelling up from Pakistan to Kabul at the time and the Taliban stopped the convoy, pulled the journalists out, let everybody else in the convoy go including their drivers, um and then took them into the hills around a place called Surobi and emptied the magazines of their Kalashnikovs into them. And so that was a point at which we understood that the dynamic had changed very radically. That journalists were no longer simply neutral players in this conflict, um who were able to exercise the right and the responsibility to speak to all parties in a conflict. All of a sudden, they were being targeted by both sides specifically because they were journalists, and the question is why? And I think, from my observations, from my thinking about this, it felt very much as though the thing that’s changed was the nature of the conflict. In the past, wars over tangible things – land, water, ethnicity and so on – journalists are observers. That’s how it was in 1995 when the conflict was over power in Kabul. But wat 9/11 did was create a war over ideas, over isms, and in that war of ideas the place where ideas themselves transmitted becomes a part of the battle space and that is by definition the media. And so, journalists are no longer observers, we are, whether we like it or not, we’re participants, we’re players in this conflict of ideas and that’s really what’s made us targets in a way that we weren’t in the years, the decades, before 9/11.

Belinda: Did that make you question your future as a foreign correspondent or strengthen it because you decided you had to report on what was going on?

Peter: No I always felt that this was, I felt quite bloody minded about it to be honest with you, um you know I’ve lost quite a few friends over the years including a very close friend of mine um, my producer Kate Peyton in Mogadishu. Um…but it’s always made me feel, as I said, more bloody minded about the role that we have. You know to say, “Look, screw you, you tried to shut us up and you can’t”.

Katie: You were talking before about how journalists went from being observers to being participants and that’s very much something that happened to you when your arrest occurred. Can you walk me through what happened that day?

Peter: I was in Cairo covering the Christmas/New Year period just for a couple of weeks for Al Jazeera. I didn’t know Egypt very well, I knew enough to be able to do some basic routine reporting of the crisis, of the ongoing conflict there. But I didn’t really get it, in the way that a lot of journalists that spent a lot of time on any one particular story do, and when you spend time you start to get a feel for the edges of a story, you start to get a sense about how far you can push those boundaries before you’re going to upset one side or the other. And because I didn’t know Egypt well enough, I didn’t understand where those limits were, we were playing with a very straight bat; the government would make a statement, we’d pick up the phone and call the opposition, and then call an analyst to make sense of it all, it was, you know, journalism 101. The trouble was that, at the time, the opposition was the Muslim Brotherhood. Um…they last formed government, they were ousted from government in a coup in the middle of 2013 and although the government, the new interim government, had kind of taken to accusing the Brotherhood of being involved in acts of terrorism, it hadn’t officially been banned. And so we still considered them to be the opposition, they were certainly the best organised political group in the country. Um…but…you know as I said, we weren’t doing anything particularly controversial we were just seeking out their responses to a lot of the things that were taking place in Af--in um, Egypt at the time. So on the night of December 28 I was--I was getting ready to go out for dinner with a friend of mine, had my laptop open listening to, streaming Triple J through the laptop as I liked to do, listen to Australian alternative rock and dancing around the room um…you know getting dressed and ready to go out. And there was a knock on the door. And I thought, that’s a little bit odd, didn’t expect any visit at that point, certainly if there was any messages then the hotel or my colleagues would always use the phone. Anyway there was a rather more urgent knock, demanding knock, and I went to the door and cracked it open as I was stuffing my shirt into my trousers and the door was flung open as if there was a spring behind it, someone obviously pushed it in. And the room was just filled with, I don’t know to this day I don’t know how many were there, it certainly felt like a lot maybe six, eight, ten I don’t really know. I had to retreat to the back of the hotel room and they filled the room in with guys and they started ransacking the place. They slammed the lid down on the laptop, they shoved the laptop into a bag, grabbed all of my equipment, all of my notebooks, cameras, everything, they started going through my clothes the whole lot. Um…and I’m protesting I’m saying “What’s going on and who are you guys?” They were all in plain clothes, they weren’t uniformed, they had an official, a guard from or security officer from the hotel with them so it was quite clear that this was official. And finally, you know, I said, “Look am I under arrest?” and they said, the guy who was clearly in charge said, “Can you read Arabic?” and I said “Well, no” and he said “Well then there’s no point showing you the arrest warrant.” I was marched off down to the, to a room, a police room where I found my colleague Mohamed Fahmy was waiting. Um…he too had been arrested and yeah it went from there.

Belinda: So what happened in those days following? It sounds like it was a whirlwind that you could barely understand what was going on.

Peter: It was a very strange, uh, period because we, I thought initially someone had made a mistake, there’s no way that the work, the very ordinary journalism that we’d been doing could have been misconstrued as terrorism you know, or as any kind of criminal act. But as things went on we, we knew were in trouble because I was taken to the National Intelligence Directorate which was the serious end of the security business in Egypt and these are the guys that deal with terrorism. And I was told of the charges, uh we were accused of aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation, being members of a terrorist organisation, financing a terrorist organisation, broadcasting false news to undermine national security, I mean, these were really, really serious charges like some of them carried the death penalty. And it was about as serious as it could possibly have been if, short of actually pulling the trigger on the Kalashnikovs ourselves. Um…we knew that this was, this was something that was quite dramatic, quite serious. Anybody who watched the trial would have recognised that there was no evidence. It was just ridiculous, um…there were, there were massive numbers of observers from human rights groups, to other journalists, to legal experts, lawyers and so on, diplomats they were all watching every stage of this, of the process. And nobody walked away from that thinking that there was any evidence, any evidence at all to confirm the allegations and so we always thought that look, they’ve got to go through at least the appearance of due process um…but surely they can’t convict us. We’re going to get to the end of the trial, we’ll be acquitted and that’ll be it, they’ll be, you know we can all go home we’ll have a party and celebrate and get on with our lives. But we also thought, well, maybe they’ve got to convict us of something just to at least justify spending at least six months in prison and on trial on terrorism charges. But if you had a good look at what we’re charged with and the evidence we thought, look, the most they could charge us with and convict us of is some kind of administrative offence, and even then it generally doesn’t carry a prison sentence but a fine, but we thought maybe for appearances sake maybe they’d put us, maybe they’d sentence us to six months and because we’d already spent six months in prison we’d be able to walk straight away. We thought worst case scenario, maybe another month or two in prison just to, again, to be seen to be tough. Seven years? That was never something we thought we’d get. Not something we ever imagined possible, so that was, that felt like being king hit by Mike Tyson. That was, that was tough.

Katie: You’ve just found out you’re about to spend the next seven years of your life in prison in Egypt. What were the days after that moment like and how did you decide to battle this?

Peter: Uh…we were moved prisons soon after. Um…we were originally in a pretty austere prison for political prisoners where most of our cell mates were senior Muslim Brotherhood figures, in fact pretty much the old Muslim Brother cabinet was in there alongside us. And we were in the cell 23 hours a day on lockdown and it was pretty extreme. But when we were convicted we were moved to another prison which had a little bit more flexibility um, we still had to stay in the cell in pretty heavily confined spaces but the cell was larger there was at least room to walk outside in the corridor outside the cell. So it was just a, it was a little bit more relaxed. But the other thing, crucially, was that the authorities agreed to let me start a Master’s degree in International Relations because I felt okay, I’m going to, if I’m going to spend seven years I don’t want to waste this time. And so Griffith University very kindly agreed to support me with a Master’s degree and I did it the old fashioned way. They sent over, literally, massive boxes of lecture notes and papers for me to read. Um…the embassy would come once every couple of weeks for a visit and they would, I’d hand write my essays and hand them to the embassy who would take them back, scan them, send them back to my lecturer who would then give me his feedback ah, for the next visit and so it was all very, very slow a process but we started that course. We also recognised that we had to really step up the campaign. And the question was always about how we frame this, whether we try and defend ourselves as victims of a misunderstanding, as merely innocent players on a larger playing field or whether we recognise this as an attack on press freedom and that’s really the route that we decided to go, it was a high risk route but I also felt that that’s actually what this was about. That it wasn’t about anything we had done, but it was about what we had come to represent. And once we understood it to be that kind of attack, I felt we had no choice but to fight it on that basis and so we spent a lot of time thinking about how to, about the messages that we needed to send around press freedom, around freedom of speech, that was very much a part of what we were, we were trying to do. But there was also a kind of pragmatic way of getting through each day, we had to spend time staying physically, mentally but also spiritually strong. You have to stay physically fit and I, the embassy brought in a piece of paper with a program called Five BX, five basic exercises, which was actually designed by the Canadian Airforce um, after World War II as a way of keeping their airmen fit if they were ever confined in, and held in confined places as POWs. And that was really, really helpful okay, you know, basic exercise press ups, sits ups, squats, those sorts of things that you, and a routine to go through and a program um, so we applied that, it’s designed now for, in the modern world, for about fifteen minutes a day, we stretched it out to about an hour a day. Um…you know we needed to be mentally strong and that’s one of the reasons I started the degree because I needed some form of mental focus beyond, that was outside of myself, it’s very easy to get very self-absorbed in prison um, and then also the program of mediation as well to try and stay spiritually fit as well. Those were, you had to keep routines up if you were ever going to stay, to get through prison in one piece.

Belinda: Did you ever give up hope? Did you think that; this is it seven years of my life I’m going to give away?

Peter: You know hope is a funny thing. The short answer to your question is yes, I gave up hope. But that’s not negative, not in the destructive sense, not in the sense that you ‘give up’. What you do, what I realised, is that you have to stop hoping because hoping means that you’re always anticipating something better than the circumstances you’re in. And if your mind is constantly somewhere else, then wherever you are at that point becomes intolerable, it feels intolerable. So if you’re constantly hoping that maybe next week I’ll get out, the weeks are constantly rolling by and you’re not getting out, and that, having that sense of hope constantly dashed can actually be very destructive. So for me, yes I gave up hope, not in the sense that I never expected to get out but I stopped worrying about that point and started focusing on what I need to get through today. And that goes back to, what I was saying earlier about that program of being physically, intellectually and spiritually strong so you had no choice but to say, okay these are my circumstances, I can fantasize about getting out and resuming my old life as much as I like but the fact is that these, my life now, my reality is these four walls and I need to learn how to cope with this now, rather than constantly hoping for some day that may or may not come.

Belinda: Your family, they played a very important role in alerting Australia to what was happening. [Audio snippet: The prosecution uh, did conclude its case with what I think in all fairness were pretty wild and sweeping allegations against the whole of the group.] Were you surprised by their strength, their ability even to front up to cameras, and press conferences and handle all those questions?

Peter: Oh yeah, I was incredibly lucky, the fact that my family was as articulate, as willing to take it on, as loveable as my parents in particular but also my brothers were. I’m under no illusions, the reason I’m able to sit here today and talk to you is because of my family. You know, they were the ones that really drove the campaign, they were the ones that really inspired people to get behind it. Let’s face it, Australians fell in love with my mum and dad not with me, you know I was some mute figure that they might have felt sorry for, stuck in a cage in Egypt, but what they felt was empathy for the pain of my parents and my family. Because those, my parents and my family, were so articulate in expressing that anguish, that Australians responded to that in droves, in millions. The free AJ staff hashtag received three billion impressions, that’s billion with a ‘b’, that’s a phenomenal number by any, even in today’s standards, that’s a huge number. And it was I think, largely because of just how effective my family was in communicating.

Katie: What role do you think the media played in securing your release?

Peter: Um…that was also a really big part of it and let’s face it we’ll never be able to put our fingers on any one element that really swung it for us.

[Newsreader: But now to more serious matters and the fate of Australian TV reporter Peter Greste. Greste has now been in jail in Egypt for close to 100 days, locked in a cell, three metres by four metres for 23 or even 24 hours a day.] Audio grab courtesy of ABC Media Watch.

Peter: But equally we were also lucky, I mean let’s face it, we were lucky on a whole host of levels. The fact that I and my colleagues had collectively worked across a range of some of the world’s most respected media, the fact that’d we’d worked around the world, you know, I worked for the BBC for years I also worked for Reuters, I worked alongside foreign correspondents, I worked briefly for CNN. And so our professional colleagues identified with us, they took on the fight as well and to an extraordinary extent. They took selfies, I mean for crying out loud even Christiane Amanpour who was working for CNN at the time, our direct rivals, was standing up on air with a free AJ staff hashtag. You can’t buy that kind of support, that kind of publicity, and more importantly that unity across outlets was also massively important I think in pushing other diplomats to keep up pressure on Egyptians but also keeping up very direct pressure on the Egyptians themselves. If we didn’t have that breadth of support across the media, I think it would have been very difficult for us to get out. And that’s one of the most extraordinary lessons in this whole thing; the collective power that the media and the public has when we all pull together is enormous. It was effective, I would still be in prison if it weren’t for that collective campaign but here’s the bad news; the fact that it takes a campaign of that scale to spring three innocent guys from prison.

Belinda: So after 400 days of languishing in prison, you were released. Can you describe that day or tell us about that day?

Peter: That was a very, very weird day. Um…because I wasn’t expecting to be released at all, it came right out of the blue. In fact, I was so not expecting to be released that I was actually on the day, on that day, I went out for a run up and down the corridor in the morning and I was thinking that we need to start a hunger strike. I was going to tell my brother, who was due for a visit later that day, that we’re going to have to start a hunger strike. We’d talked about it for quite, quite a lot over the previous months, um, and it felt to me that the time was right because as far as I was concerned the authorities had no intention of letting us go, there was no sign of it for a whole host of reasons; legal, political, diplomatic reasons. We seemed to have lost all of the best opportunities for release, and it seemed to me that they were just playing with us. So, I remember running up and down the corridor, lost in my own little world thinking about our strategy, thinking about what I was going to say to my brother, mentally preparing for this hunger strike, when one of the guards comes up, waves at me, interrupts me, stops me in the middle of my run and says “Look Mr Peter, my boss, the warden, wants to see you.” And I remember thinking, okay that’s a little bit odd, um, normally they don’t want to see you in sweats, you have to, there’s a certain amount of formality in the system and so I had to go and get changed into the proper prison uniform and the guard said “No, no, no he needs to see you now don’t bother changing.” I thought, a bit odd, so he escorted me out and in the courtyard outside the warden was waiting with his deputy, and again that’s highly unusual. So I went over to him, I said “what’s up?” He said “I’ve got some news for you,” he said, “pack your things you’re going.” I said “Hang on, what do you mean I’m going, you mean I’m moving prisons?” He said, “No, no, no the embassy’s coming for you, you’re going home get moving, yalla!” And it was just, it was so surreal, it was like, it was bizarre. And I, my head was spinning, it was really hard to take in, to comprehend. The guard, the warden also said to me, “Look don’t tell your colleagues where you’re going, what’s happening.” I thought I can’t, that’s bullshit, I can’t do that. Um…so I went in and I told my colleagues, I said “Look I’ve got some news, I’m going, I’m being released.” And they were ecstatic, they were absolutely ecstatic, they were embracing, high-fiving it was fantastic. Because it was always hard, we kind of contemplated that prospect of one of us leaving before the others and at the time it always felt awkward but we also realised that in fact the most effective advocate for those still in prison would be the person that had been released. You know, it is hard walking away from that and leaving your colleagues behind, but equally we realised, well personally I always felt, that whenever someone was released it always felt as though a little part of my own self was being freed and that always felt wonderful. So I imagined that if one of my colleagues had been released the idea that they would refuse to go really made me feel quite sick. And I knew that was the case for them as well. But, it still felt really conflicted walking out of prison, getting into a prison van, I was put in the front of the van not the back, which is where the prisoners usually sit in the cage in the back, and this time the guards with the weapons were in the back and I was sitting up the front. Um…the embassy was in a vehicle tailing us, and we drove through the streets of Cairo, lights and sirens wailing at an incredible breakneck pace and I’m sort of wondering I haven’t survived 400 days in prison just to die in a car accident in Cairo on the way to the airport! Um, and we finally pull up at the airport, screeching holt, and the door of the van slides open and the, one of the officers from the prison steps out, shakes my hand and says, you know, “Thanks for staying hope you had a good time, you know, [laughs] hope it wasn’t too bad for you, you know, have a great life, do stay in touch!” I was like, “Yeah, right, whatever.” Um, and then I was escorted in and handed over to the ambassador Ralph King who was waiting there, and my brother who was also waiting there, we got on a plane and then I just, I remember sitting on the aircraft and it was so hard to understand, so hard to comprehend that I swear, I half expected as we were buckling up and taxiing out on the runway, the pilot to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome on board flight Egypt Air 617 bound for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.” You know, I would not have been surprised if that message had come through but as it happened we were heading for Cyprus and as soon as we stepped off the plane in Cyprus I realised that actually, this was finally done.

Belinda: But it didn’t end there for you did it? Because the fight continued because you had your two colleagues still in prison.

Peter: Oh look, yeah absolutely and that was the first thing I said. I had a couple of days in Cyprus just to decompress and absorb what had happened and then flew back to Australia and when I got off the plane, there was that phenomenal wall of media, which was just mind-blowing to me, absolutely mind-blowing. I never anticipated that level of attention um, I thought when we stepped off the plane or as I was flying in I thought, look the story’s old, everyone knows I’ve been released, you know, I’m just coming home now. And I arrived at the airport about one a.m. on a Wednesday morning and I thought that only a handful of the morning TV news programs would show up, perhaps a couple of insomniac photographers might be there, otherwise it’s a whole day’s news cycle before this is ever going to get out. You know, the gazillion things that’ll happen, no one’s really going to want to pay too much attention or effort to a bloke flying in at one o’clock in the morning. There was this vast wall of cameras, I just couldn’t believe the numbers of people that had actually shown up, it was phenomenal. And of course, the first thing I said then was that, “Look this is great news, I’m happy to be out but there is still, there are still my colleagues and if it’s right for me to be free, it’s right for them to be free as well.” And from that point on, we kept campaigning very, very hard indeed.

Katie: So you went from reporting on the news to essentially being the news. How was that transition for you?

Peter: Initially quite difficult. Being a subject of the stories was odd. I’ve always been the storyteller not the story. And it felt, it felt weird for a while but I finally came to the conclusion that look, we’ve still got a campaign to fight. First of all, for my colleagues’ release, but also more broadly around the issues of press freedom, freedom of speech, journalist safety and so on. And I recognised that my story itself is interesting to people and if that story is worth telling, if people are interested in it, if people are able to learn something deeper about issues around press freedom because of it, then it’s worth telling that story. Um, and in a funny way, let’s go back to one of the things we said a lot earlier, it made me feel quite bloody minded that the Egyptians tried to shut us down. So every time I stood in front of a microphone and spoke, not just about our experience but spoke around the issues around press freedom, it was like flipping a proverbial middle finger at the Egyptians and saying, no, screw you, you can’t silence me. In fact, if anything you’ve given me a platform, you’ve given me microphones, you’ve actually made my voice louder and dammit I’m going to keep using that platform.

Belinda: So you said that your focus changed once you were released, um, to your colleagues, what happened to them?

Peter: Well it’s an interesting thing, after I was released, I was released in a very narrow gap in the process, after we had won our appeal, when the court of cassation officially recognised or ordered the retrial and declared us to be accused prisoners rather than convicts, but before the retrial could begin. After I was released a couple of weeks later, the retrial began and my colleagues, in fact, including myself, were placed on trial, I was technically on trial in absentia. They were released on bail through the whole period of the trial, but six months later when the retrial ended we were all reconvicted and they went back to prison. We really stepped up, we amped up the campaign once again because we all, again perhaps rather naively, felt that they would probably be released after all that. And, about a month later they were finally pardoned and set free. Curiously enough the pardon didn’t extend to me so I’m still a convicted terrorist, I still have an outstanding prison sentence to serve in Egypt but the other guys have gone on to other things. Fahmy is now living and working out of Canada doing academic work, media consulting and so on. My other colleague Baher is at work in Doha.

Katie: So you are not planning on going back to Egypt.

Peter: Not anytime soon. I’m frustrated, I would love to see the pyramids but I don’t think that’s on the cards. Travel is still a very serious problem for me, any country that has an extradition treaty is technically a problem with Egypt and that’s not insignificant number of countries, places like the Middle East, African Union and so on all have extradition treaties. But also there are plenty of other countries that require you to state on your visa application forms whether you’ve got a criminal record or not. Well, one of those countries is the United States. And when you fill out the online form, you check the box that asks if you have a criminal record and I have to say yes, then up comes another box saying please explain and I have to say I was convicted on terrorism charges in Egypt. And of course all the clacks and sound in the United States, the Homeland Security guys come panicking and running through, it’s a big drama.

Belinda: In the almost four years since you’ve been released, you’ve become quite an advocate for the freedom of the press.

Peter: Yeah, yeah and that’s whether I like it or not, that’s the way my life has evolved. I mean I feel a certain responsibility because I do feel, and as I explained earlier, I feel as though all journalists have come under enormous pressure around the world in recent years and I feel as though press freedom generally is backsliding. I mean you need to look at some of the reports from organisations like Freedom House, who in their annual report from last year said that press freedom is the worst that it’s been in the last fifteen years. And that’s deeply troubling. We should be moving forward on this, not backwards. Um an so if there were literally thousands of journalists around the world who were advocating for our freedom while we were in Egypt, I feel as though I’ve got both a responsibility but as I said a moment ago, a platform to keep talking about press freedom issues. That’s now my life. I can use my experience to educate and inform the next generation of journalists as I’m doing here at University of Queensland, but also to keep investigating, thinking about, and talking about the wider issues around press freedom. The war on terror. Governments have seen licence to define national security and terrorism so broadly that it, a lot of cases and in this case as well, that it’s actually had the effect of silencing press freedom and in the process, damaging the way our democracy works. And I think we need to push back against that, we need to underline the really important role that press freedom has played in our democracy over the past two hundred years, we need to remind people of the fundamental role that it has played, and make sure that people understand the importance of defending that role. If we keep chipping away at it, if we keep limiting the work that journalists are able to do, keep creating blind spots that they can’t look into, then we create opportunities for things to go wrong. For bad stuff to happen. And I feel very passionate about, you know, maintaining that pressure. One of the problems is that in this digital world we’ve got so many sources of information, that we have the illusion of being well-informed but quantity isn’t the same as quality. And we need to make sure that we understand that you cannot have a strong democracy without strong journalism.

Belinda: That actually creates a great segway because earlier this year you were appointed as the UNESCO Chair of Journalism and Communication at UQ.

Peter: It’s a great title isn’t it?

Belinda: Isn’t it? It sounds very impressive. Um, so how do you feel about this new appointment and what are you hoping to instil in this next generation of journalists?

Peter: I love the position. I mean I think the title itself does sound a little bit pompous at one level, and I don’t mean to be dismissive of it. It’s a great honour to have that Chair’s title, and it is important as it underscores the importance of the role – It underscores the importance of the subject. And it gives me both the authority but also the capacity to really investigate, to drive research into areas around journalism, communication, the role of the media, freedom of the press, and so on. So at one level it means that I have the capacity to dig in, to investigate, to expand the old journalism work used to do through academia, but also to use that research to talk publicly and with authority about these issues – to make submissions to government, to lobby internationally, to speak about press freedom. But also at a much granular level it means I can speak to journalists and give them some of the benefit of my own experience over the years, some of the lessons I’ve learned. Very hard lessons that I really – that I’m hoping others can learn without having to go through some of the dramas that I’ve had over the years. And maybe just remind journalists, the next generation of journalists about why the job matters, and to underline some of those really basic principles of what it is ­– why we exist, what we are supposed to do, what role we are supposed play, and hopefully inspire them to really drill down and do that job with passion and commitment.

Belinda: I feel like we can keep asking you questions but we do have to wrap it up, but before we close the episode we have a short segment called spare change in which we get to know you a bit better with some rapid-fire questions, so here we go. What’s the one fact that listeners wouldn’t know about you?

Peter: Oh, I’m a kite surfer. I love kite surfing. It’s something I started when I was actually living in Kenya. There’s no way I’m going to leave this area without actually making most of living on the beach and kite surfing was the thing that inspired me so.

Belinda: What is the one question you are sick of being asked?

Peter: “What was it like in prison?” It’s such a big generic, amorphous question that has so many bits to it that it is impossible to answer. I completely understand why people ask it. It’s just a difficult thing to really respond to.

Belinda: If you could go back in time by 10 years what advice would you give your younger self?

Peter: I think I’d give my younger self the advice to be fearless in reporting. You know, just to cover what you believe in rather than what you feel you should or what other people think you ought to be doing.

Belinda: Who or what is your biggest influence in life?

Peter: I would have to say a guy who died in 1985, I think it was. A character called Neil Davis. An amazing Australian cameraman who was working in Vietnam, and Laos, Cambodia, across South-East Asia through the 60’s and 70’s, and 80’s. One of the most extraordinary and extraordinarily brave journalists ever. And he was killed in a coup in Thailand, in Bangkok. But his biography, a book called One Crowded Hour, was the book that I read just before I decided I really wanted to be a foreign correspondent and it was my inspiration.

Belinda: If you had to choose a piece of music that would best describe you which song would you play?

Peter: You know… a song that most people probably wouldn’t know is a song by a guy called Fela Kuti, who is the father of Afrobeat. He is a Nigerian musician, a wonderfully political musician, and there is a fantastic song called Water no get enemy. It’s about how water flows around things, around problems. That to me is the song. And it’s a brilliant song too.

Belinda: That’s the end of another episode of UQ ChangeMakers. If you want to learn more about Peter Greste and the School of Communication and Arts visit our website at uq.edu.au/changemakers, where you can also subscribe to ChangeMakers Magazine. I’m Belinda McDougall.

Katie: And I’m Katie Rowney. Our podcast was produced by Michael Jones, Rachel Westbury and Jessica Mcgaw. If you enjoyed this episode tell your friends of colleagues, leave a review on iTunes, or email us at changemakers@uq.edu.au. If you want to create change, tune in next time when we interview another inspiring member of the UQ community. Thanks for listening.

 

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