Australian journalist and winner of the 2015 Australian Human Rights Medal, Peter Greste, knows a thing or two about reporting in war zones. Before being locked up in Egypt, he spent years reporting on conflict across the Middle East. In our last post, he told us how he entertained himself during his time in jail, making murals out of foil and backgammon sets from bottle lids. In this one, he reveals how being arrested galvanised him to take on anyone who would threaten freedom of expression – and he’s not just talking about the Egyptian government.
Survivors of trauma are often quoted as saying that they are grateful for awful experience X because it made them a better person. What are your thoughts on that?
I would never wish that experience on my enemy. I never want to go through it again. Ever. Equally, just a week ago we had a family dinner, a rare event. We have this tradition of saying a gratitude, rather than grace – we’re not a religious family. Mum said, “You know what? I’m grateful Peter went to prison.” Everyone burst out laughing but we knew what she meant: that all of us in some way have gotten something out of it. It gave us all some fire in our bellies, a sense of purpose we otherwise wouldn’t have had. We’re just very lucky it turned out the way it did.
But also remember: the Egyptians tried to shut us up. That’s what the whole point of this was. Every time I speak to journalists or stand in front of a microphone, it’s a way of flipping a finger at the Egyptian government and saying, “Fuck you. You can’t shut me up.”
I was struck by the unusual structure of your memoir The First Casualty. It documents your time in prison, but it also covers what you see as the decline in press freedom over recent years. Why does that keep you up at night?
In wars that are over tangible things, journalists are observers, they’re not participants. But in a war on ideas, the space where ideas are transmitted becomes part of the battlefield, and that, by definition, is the media. In that conflict, journalists are no longer neutral observers, we are a part of the battlespace and we become victims of it. Whether we like it or not, we’ve somehow been dragged unwittingly into it, and we’ve been used and abused by both sides.
You see 9/11 as a pivotal turning point for journalism. What went wrong?
I can’t point the finger at any one individual, but I think George Bush’s statement to the joint session of Congress after 9/11 – where he said, “In this war either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists” – was a really important moment. I don’t think he intended it that way, but I think unwittingly [from that] moment, the war became a binary one. You’re either on our side or with the others. But as journalists, we’re ethically supposed to speak to all the parties in the conflict. We’re then seen as hostile to the government; the government starts to see us as treasonous.
For example, Al Jazeera Arabic managed to get the one interview that I wager every journalist in the world would have wanted post-9/11: Osama Bin Laden. Alongside this, they were broadcasting stories about the effects of US bombing on civilians in Afghanistan. Then Americans dropped the bomb squarely on the roof of the Al Jazeera bureau, in 2001 and then again in 2004 during the invasion of Iraq. That, to my mind, sent a very clear message to journalists. At the time there was colossal criticism of Al Jazeera for giving voice to terrorism, for promoting terrorist ideology.
And then suddenly, you and your colleagues became targets…
That’s exactly what happened to us in Cairo. It’s exactly what could happen to any journalist in this country who does important, legitimate journalism and goes and finds some fighter who’s either thinking of or has joined Islamic State and tries to understand the logic behind the ideology. Why is it they’re fighting? Why is it they feel it’s necessary? If we do that, we can be charged and convicted under the Foreign Fighters legislation. I think that’s a real problem: there’s no public interest defence in the law.
I worry that in trying to make us safe, which is a politically convenient thing to do, we’re chipping away at the foundations that really make democracy work. I don’t think that there’s necessarily any grand conspiracy. I’m not suggesting that Malcolm Turnbull is trying to move Australia towards an autocracy. But I think that neither side, Labor or Coalition, wants to be seen to be weak on national security. So the natural instinct is to push ever harder. We have a system that has served us incredibly well for the past 200 years, where there’s a balance between the power of the state and the rights of the individual. And what we’re doing is chipping away at the rights of the individual and favouring the power of the state. And in moving the slider in that direction, we’re damaging the fundamental mechanisms of how our democracy works. That’s why it concerns me.
We’re seeing increasing legislation in this area…
Yes. George Williams, from the University of NSW has been tracking this stuff. Before 9/11 there was one bit of legislation that dealt with terrorism, and that was in the Northern Territory. Post-9/11 he has found 66. I’m not for a second suggesting terrorism is not a threat and that our security services don’t need to adapt and get new tools. But we’ve got system and structures in place that serve us very well, so if we are changing this, we need to think much more deeply before rushing new things into place.
Something that surprised me in your book is your mention of Obama as one of the worst post-Nixon US presidents when it comes to freedom of speech.
Yes, that was a big surprise. The reason it happened is in part because Obama has sought to control the message. He’s a master communicator. But he used the tools of national security, particularly the Espionage Act, to do it. The “War on Terror” gave him the political space to use that sort of legislation.
You compare the very different type of coverage of recent Paris and Beirut terrorism acts, as a way of highlighting these issues.
The media tends to emphasise those who are like us. We portray outsiders as ‘the other’. Beirut is seen as the consequence of a political struggle between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government. It brands the victims as implicitly involved, and in some way responsible, for their own deaths. Whereas, in Paris, the coverage is far more compassionate. Even though it’s a political struggle, we portray the victims as innocent victims. We humanise them. The victims in Beirut are human, after all. They are people, like us. We’ve become sloppy with the way we’ve used language.
Is that what you mean when you talk about “toxic language”?
I quote George Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language. He argued that language exists beyond its dictionary language. Words have meaning that's far, far deeper. Culture, history and background underpin language, so when we say “War on Terror”, it implies using all the tools of war, like tanks, gunships, armies, special forces and all that sort of stuff. Terribly heroic; it gets everyone fired up. Politicians have consistently used it to galvanise support. But the language forces us into a narrow mindset and a narrow range of options. If we use different language, the thinking opens up. When [the media] consistently parrots the language, we have one-sided and unhealthy public debate.
In your book, you recall how your journalism instincts kicked in as soon as you were arrested. You quickly organised proxy translators, and interviewed people in your tightly shared cells. Was it to orient yourself? Habit?
It wasn’t habit so much... You do it because it’s what you know how to do. I’ve spent a lot of time on frontlines. If you get too personally engaged in the stories, it can be really tough to cope with. Treating stories as a journalist project is a way of, not distancing yourself, but using your journalist tools to act as a barrier against the stories you are covering. So turning what we were going through into a story was a way of processing it and managing it, by bringing those tools to bear.
You talk a lot in your memoir about the 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mill. Why?
Mill articulated the foundations of freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of the press. He laid out the philosophical bedrock: we should never try and suppress or deny an idea without exposing it, without arguing it. There are two reasons for that. Either you lose the opportunity to replace your own flawed ideas with an idea that might be better. Or, you lose the opportunity to kill the other idea with your own, to demonstrate it’s inferior. That’s the fundamental thing we do as journalists. Unless you’re prepared to stay dedicated to that constant interplay of ideas, you let bad ideas take root and fester. I think we’ve lost that, to some extent.
What’s next for Peter Greste?
I’m talking to the ABC about doing more work with them. I’m still trying to work out what I’m going to do next year, but I’m looking for a couple of big documentary projects. I’d like to continue with writing. I’m still determined to keep working as a journalist. It’s what I do, it’s what I love.
Peter Greste’s memoir, The First Casualty, is out now.