After spending 400 days in an Egyptian prison, Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste arrived at the Frontline Club to a standing ovation. He was giving a talk on press freedom and the issues faced by the next generation of journalists. I covered the event for Journograds…
When I asked Peter Greste what advice he would give to aspiring journalists, he laughed. “I was afraid of this question”, he said. “Do as I say, not as I do!”
The 49-year-old Australian was of course referring to his now infamous time in an Egyptian jail. He was arrested, along with his Al Jazeera colleague Mohamed Fahmy, in a Cairo hotel on the 29th of December 2013. Another colleague, Baher Mohamed, was arrested later at his home.
The trio were charged with ‘broadcasting false news’ and ‘aiding a terrorist organisation’, and they faced lengthy sentences. However, Greste was freed on the 1st of February this year and his colleagues have since been released on bail.
Greste’s message to young journalists is clear. “You are entering this business at the toughest time in the history of modern journalism”, he warned, “it’s incredibly dangerous in some places in the world.”
Greste believes that budding journalists are taking greater and greater risks to establish a reputation. He puts this down to an increasingly competitive industry and what he described as ineffective business models.
“While you want to show that you are courageous and capable, my instinct is to say to you… don’t push it,” he said. But he then explained his own break into journalism and how he nearly got himself killed in Bosnia. And, even though he says he was a ‘stupid idiot’, it was that very job that gave him a start in the industry. But he says he’d be the last person to encourage us to follow the path he took.
So, what are the main challenges Peter Greste sees us facing?
“Well, the [journalism] market is becoming more and more demanding and increasing numbers of journalists are freelancing. Add to that the fact that areas in the world are becoming increasingly dangerous; and journalism itself is becoming the frontline. If you are a freelancer going into conflict zones, without the support of an organisation, you can get yourself into real trouble. Be careful!”
But he did have some encouraging messages too. His wide smile and calm persona showed he held no bitterness and that had not been traumatised by his ordeal. Speaking of the international campaign that was sparked by his arrest, he said it was empowering that journalists across the globe had pulled together. “The media community are now demonstrating a unity of purpose and sending a very clear message all over the world that unjust treatment of journalists is not acceptable,” he said earnestly.
He believes competitors are united, fighting for the same cause; and this is unprecedented and has enormous value. He recommended that we make use of this solidarity and use it to help the many other journalists that are suffering right now, but have received little coverage.
When describing the challenges he’s been facing in Egypt, which included solitary confinement and being in a cage, he said, “I think most people are vastly more capable of dealing with things than they imagine. You learn to adapt and to cope.”
Mr Greste’s experience in Egyptian Prison
Due to the on-going trial, involving his Al Jazeera colleagues: Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy who were released on bail on 13th February, Peter couldn’t go in to great detail about his treatment by the Egyptian authorities. The re-trail starts Monday and he will be one of their defendants. However, he did talk about how he coped mentally for those very long 400 days.
“There were some black days where you sunk into despair, but if you nursed it and let your anger dominate then you’d only end up hurting yourself,” he said.
After 10 days in solitary confinement in a terrorist prison, the cell door opened and his Al Jazeera colleagues walked in. The three of them were delighted to be together, and they deliberately set up a daily routine to exercise themselves mentally, spiritually and physically.
“If you want to loose weight, spend 400 days in Egyptian prison”, he joked, “I’m in better physical condition than I’ve been in in years!
He needed structure to get through and so he would start his day by meditating each morning to try to control his thoughts. Another coping strategy was to study. He persuaded the prison authorities to allow him to start a masters degree in international relations. An Australian University would send boxes containing letters from the professor, lecture notes, assignments and print outs of essential readings. He wrote his essays the old-fashioned way with a pencil and paper and the Australian embassy sent them back to the university for assessment. Lastly, the embassy sent them a physical work-out regime of five exercises that could be done in very small spaces.
The most important thing for their sanity was to set a horizon or target date. Sometimes it would just be until the end of the day. But it was essential that they had something to aim for.
On the day of his release Peter was running up and down the corridor to keep fit and one of the officers beckoned him over and said, “the boss wants to speak to you.” So he went to see the boss who said, “pack your stuff, you’re going” and Peter said, “to another prison?” But the reply was “no the embassy is coming to get you… you’re going home.”
Being swept up in a hug from his family when he arrived in Australia was unbelievable for him and in a way he feels like he’s now had a second birth.
But now Mr Greste is keen to divert some of the attention, that him and his two Al Jazeera colleagues are receiving, to the many other journalists who have been arrested and imprisoned. The question of press freedom is a much wider case.
“Although, journalists covering journalists can feel self-serving you have to recognise that this is a societal issue, ” Mr Greste said, “An attack on free speech is an attack on society. It’s a matter of principle”. We should be giving more news coverage to journalists in prison.
*Peter Greste gave this talk on 20th February 2015