Having been imprisoned for 400 days under terrorism charges in Egypt, journalist and UNESCO Chair of Journalism and Communication at the University of Queensland Peter Greste is worried at the impact new government powers, justified under the veil of combatting terrorism, will have on journalism and democracy.
Between December 2013 and February 2015, Peter Greste ran a gauntlet through the Egyptian legal system. Arrested under the accusation of his reporting damaging Egyptian national security, Greste was thrown into solitary confinement without charge, subsequently tried with his Al Jazeera colleagues, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed and sentenced to seven year imprisonment. After widespread condemnation of the decision, Greste was deported to Australia on February 1, 2015, and his colleagues were pardoned later in the year.
This confusing and harrowing experience forms the basis for Greste’s book The First Casualty: A Memoir from the Front Lines of the Global War on Journalism, along with more first-hand accounts of reporting throughout his career. Greste makes the argument therein that journalism and journalists have become the targets of governments and combatants in recent years. Asked how this has come to be, Greste says that the peculiarities of the ever-running War on Terror are to blame.
“This is what happens when you end up with a conflict over ideas rather than a conflict over tangible things,” Greste tells The Adelaide Review. “What we’ve seen is a war on terror, a war over ideas. The ‘clash of civiliations’ isn’t so much a clash of civilisations as a clash of –isms. There’s western ideas of liberalism and conservative Islamic ideas of what Islam should be. Because Journalists occupy the space where those ideas are transmitted, they become targets.”
Greste says the increasing numbers of journalists imprisoned or killed in conflict zones since 9/11 is evidence of this. Where journalists were once considered neutral, reporting on the conventional circumstances of war, being territory, lives lost and destruction, now they are targeted for relaying the ideas that competitors battle over.
“If you look at the numbers, the deaths have been in those areas around the War on Terror and journalists have been specifically targeted by both sides,” he says. “Daniel Pearl was one of the first. He had his head taken off his shoulders, not because of anything that he’d done or reported, but because of who he was as a journalist.”
Aside from executions, legislative attacks have been levied against journalists, as they were Greste and his colleagues in Egypt.
“The number of journalists in prison has gone up consistently,” he says. “Last year was the highest on record. I think it’s close to 280 journalists in prison and if you look at the numbers from CPJ [Committee to Protect Journalists], which breaks down the count according to charges, more than two thirds are in prison on what we would call crimes against the state, so things like espionage, sedition, treason, terrorism and so on, rather than what you’d consider normal journalistic transgressions like defamation.”
One current case could be emulating this worrying pattern, too. Filmmaker James Ricketson is currently being held in Cambodia accused of espionage, and while Ricketson appears to have harboured a strong dislike for Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, there is yet little proof of any spying.
“It hasn’t really been specified who he’s supposed to have been spying for,” says Greste of the ongoing case. “There’s been some dark intimations that he was working for the CIA with no evidence whatsoever, but it seems bizarre given what we know of what he was doing.”
Australia certainly isn’t immune to these sorts of issues, Greste says, and the language surrounding preventing terrorism has given our governments license to crack down on freedom of expression and the free press.
“The fact that the war on terror is so prominent in our minds and that terrorism is such a serious feature means that governments can use that rhetoric and get away with it.”
Greste says that examples of these legislative oversteps include the data retention laws passed by the Abbott government and new national security legislation which could see journalists imprisoned for receiving government documents from their sources.
Asked whether planned protections for journalists within that new national security legislation will go far enough, Greste says “we don’t have the detail and that’s where the devil is,” but worries that the laws could still harm robust journalism.
“Let’s go back to the metadata legislation, where after an outcry, the government conceded and put in protections for journalists, which is all very well and good, but those protections weren’t extended to a journalist’s sources,” says Greste. “So, for example, if a journalist was investigating corruption in the finance ministry, nobody would have to go to the courts to get journalist’s metadata, they would just go to the employees of the finance ministry for their metadata for phone calls to new organisations or to journalists.”
Greste believes that hampering the function of the free press will result in a net-loss for Australia’s democracy, which has thrived as a result of transparency and the media’s function as a watchdog.
“One of the fundamentals of the system that’s made Australia one of the most prosperous, stable and peaceful places on the planet has been that system of openness and transparency with the media working as a public watchdog,” says Greste. “It’s not always pretty and not always particularly edifying but it’s worked. I think we’ve got a responsibility to protect this system or we will risk great danger to our democracy if we lose sight of that.”
Peter Greste will appear in conversation with Ben Doherty at WOMADelaide’s Planet Talks on Monday, March 12.
Friday, March 9 to Monday, March 12