Freed journalist Peter Greste gets honorary doctorate then calls for free speech in the age of terror

By MARK PEARSON

The Australian journalist jailed for 400 days in Egypt called for greater freedom for the media during the war on terror after being awarded an honorary doctorate by Griffith University tonight (December 4).

Journalist Peter Greste receives his honorary doctorate at Griffith University

Journalist Peter Greste receives his honorary doctorate at Griffith University

Greste received an Honorary Doctorate from Griffith University for his service to journalism before delivering the annual Griffith Lecture at the Queensland Conservatorium in South Bank Brisbane.

His arrest with Al Jazeera colleagues, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, by Egyptian authorities on false terrorism charges, triggered international demands for their release from 2013 to 2015.

“If I’d known it was this easy to get a doctorate I would have been arrested years ago,” he joked. “It’s a great honour to receive this award. I take it as a mark of recognition, not just for what we went through but also for what it represents…for those 400 days of prison.’

“We fought hard for our own freedom, but I think it’s important that people also see the bigger picture of due process and freedom of speech.

“I’m being recognised more for the things we came to represent, than anything that I’ve done.”

He argued large parts of the media had given up on their public responsibility to keep the public informed with fair and accurate reporting. The war on terror was a battle of ideas and journalists were active participants.

The media should be properly be part of a functioning democracy in its role as the fourth estate, checking the functioning on the other arms of government.

“In the war of terror we seem to be losing sight of that key idea,” he said. “Governments the world over are using that ‘t’ word to clamp down on those freedoms.”

He gave recent examples from other countries of journalists being arrested on trumped-up terror charges just as he and his two colleagues had been in Egypt.

Australians should not feel smug because of legislation introduced in recent years targeting those disclosing special intelligence operations, the Foreign Fighters Bill and metadata retention laws.

These restricted the reporting on important events, the main story of the era about international terrorism, and seriously damaged the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.

“It makes confidential whistleblowing almost impossible without risking a prison term,” he said.

“Each has an effect on journalists being able to do the job the public demands of us.”

However, he criticised news media organisations and journalists for not being proactive enough in fighting the introduction of such laws.

“We the media have become increasingly slack in challenging and questioning governments,” he said.

He said journalists should not accept the rhetoric of governments engaged in the war on terror. Rather, questioning that misuse of language would be “one of the most patriotic things to do”.

“Panicked and hyped up language” played into the hands of Islamic State, he said.

“We the media have a responsibility to uphold our end of the bargain as well.”

He said the #FreeAJStaff hashtag calling for the release of him and his colleagues attracted billions of supporters and indicated a high level of public belief that journalism was fundamental to democracy.

During his 400-day detention in an Egyptian prison he studied international relations with Griffith University.

Greste turned 50 this week. He grew up in Brisbane and has reported on political events all over the world. As a correspondent, between 1991 and 1995, he reported from many locations including London, Bosnia and South Africa where he worked with Reuters, CNN, WTN and the BBC.

Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, he returned to Afghanistan to cover the war there. In 2011, he received a prestigious Peabody Award for his BBC documentary Somalia: Land of Anarchy. In December 2013, his employer Al Jazeera sent him from his base in Nairobi to Cairo to cover the bureau for three weeks. It was then he was arrested. 

In June 2014, after more than six months in Cairo’s infamous Tora Prison, a court found Greste and his colleagues guilty and sentenced them to seven years imprisonment.

Peter Greste with his Griffith lecturers Dr Dan Halvorson and Professor Andrew O'Neill.

Peter Greste with his Griffith lecturers Dr Dan Halvorson and Professor Andrew O’Neill. Photo: Michael Cranfield

He said presenting the Griffith Lecture on December 4 was a way of validating what he and his colleagues went through retrospectively. “It’s a way of applying meaning to what we went through. Those 400 days weren’t wasted.

“I learned a lot about myself in prison but that time has also given me the credibility to talk about those issues around press freedom. I feel a responsibility to talk about these issues, partly because so many of my friends, so many journalists, fought so hard for me, that’s why people backed us.”

While his colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were pardoned by the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in September, Mr Greste still carries a criminal conviction and an outstanding prison sentence which his legal team is fighting.

Related: See my piece from June 22 2015 in The Conversation : How surveillance is wrecking journalist-source confidentiality

© Mark Pearson 2015

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

2 Comments

Filed under national security, terrorism

2 responses to “Freed journalist Peter Greste gets honorary doctorate then calls for free speech in the age of terror

  1. Vive the fourth estate and freedom of the press. These are fundamental to any real democracy and a meaningful understanding of the complexities of world events.

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