Australian journalist Peter Greste, the former Al Jazeera correspondent who spent 400 days in an Egyptian prison, delivered the Sydney PEN Free Voices address at the 2018 Sydney Writers’ Festival. Mr Greste, who also worked as a foreign correspondent for Reuters, CNN and the BBC, predominantly in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa, joined the University of Queensland as Professor in Journalism and Communication since his release from prison and return to Australia.
The world is changing – we all know that – but in what direction? In 2011, President Obama addressed a joint session of the Australian parliament, in which he said, “The currents of history may ebb and flow, but over time they move – decidedly, decisively – in a single direction. History is on the side of the free – free societies, free governments, free economies, free people.”
Democracy 101 tells us that central to a free, democratic society is a free press, able to do its job as the public watchdog, keeping track of what governments do in our name. Well, if that’s the case, and freedom does indeed move in a single direction, we ought to be seeing a trend towards greater press freedom, greater diversity…
Each year, Freedom House does a survey of media freedom around the world. It puts together a matrix of factors such as government censorship, concentration of ownership, media laws and so on, and then draws up a map to give us a sense of what’s going on around the world.
Its latest report, published last year, declared “Global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016 amid unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies and new moves by authoritarian states to control the media, including beyond their borders.”
More recently, Reporters without Borders published its 2018 World Press Freedom Index. RSF’s grim summary said the report “reflects growing animosity towards journalists. Hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism pose a threat to democracies”.
What’s instructive is how things have changed over time. According to Freedom House, 25 years ago areas deemed to have a genuinely free media covered North and South America, southern Africa, Australasia and Europe. States that had a partly free media covered pockets of Latin America, gratifying chunks of west and east Africa, and north and south Asia. The problem areas ran across north and central Africa, the Middle East, and central and east Asia, while the worst of the worst were Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and Myanmar.
Five years later, in 2000, media repression had extended to north Asia and to some extent areas in Africa and Latin America. In 2005, there was a brief fight back for media freedom in Africa, but otherwise the world remained disturbingly bleak. By 2015, the situation had grown progressively worse.
The Committee for the Protection of Journalists has also been tracking the numbers, especially attacks on journalists, and found they broadly relate to the regions that Freedom House has marked as trouble-zones.
Last year was a record for journalist deaths. In fact, the past two years have seen record highs, with 262 journalists behind bars as of December 1, 2017. So, what has happened? Well, let me point to one year in particular which I think was the turning point – 2001. Nobody needs reminding that it was in that year that Al Qaeda brought down the Twin Towers, and George W. Bush declared War on Terror.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CJP) has analysed the charges that imprisoned journalists are facing. Just over a third of them were on charges specifically related to their work – things like slander, defamation, and false news, as well as a range of other charges.
But almost three quarters are in prison on what the CPJ broadly defines as “anti-state” charges. That’s things like treason, sedition, and terrorism.
My Al Jazeera colleagues and I were in this sector. In our case, we were charged with supporting a terrorist organization, being members of a terrorist organisation, financing a terrorist organisation, and broadcasting false news with intent to undermine national security. We were convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.
The Egyptian authorities were right in a way, when they insisted that they had never imprisoned journalists for their journalism. All of us – the journalists involved in the Al Jazeera case – were accused of some very serious criminal activity. In their eyes, the fact that we were journalists was incidental. That is true of most of the cases that the CPJ has been tracking.
So, what’s going on here?
In my view, the turning point seems to be around 9/11. The wars that we covered before then, especially through the 1990s, were conflicts over land or water or ethnicity. They were wars with front lines that were relatively easy to define. Bosnia was, of course, one of those conflicts. And although some groups like the Serbs came to see journalists as threats in themselves, by and large our presence was accepted. In those wars, journalists are considered as observers, which of course carries its own risks in an environment where belligerents often want to cover things up, but they are not seen as participants. Both the belligerents and governments had come to recognise the role of journalists as legitimate if annoying actors on the battlefield, just as aid workers and medical staff were.
But when Al Qaeda attacked Washington and New York, President George W. Bush declared “you are with us or you are with the terrorists”. With that single statement, the world changed for journalists. Instead of a conflict that could be defined in terms of physical space, or clearly demarcated resources, we saw a war over a set of ideas – a battle between two opposing world-views. The “War on Terror” has become, as a friend of mine once quipped, a war on an abstract noun.
In this conflict of ideas, the battlefield is, by definition, the space where those ideas are prosecuted – through the media itself. The media is the battlefield. And journalists have become the unwitting and unenlisted foot soldiers.
This is not an abstract idea. This is a very real problem with some very serious flesh-and-blood consequences.
Let me give you a few examples. In 1995, I worked in Afghanistan as the BBC’s Kabul correspondent. That was back during that golden age of journalistic freedom. In those days, we crossed the front lines with impunity. Western governments hated the Islamist Taliban, but seemed to recognise the value of clear, independent reporting to help make sense of the rise of the organisation. We were encouraged to cover the crisis and interrogate the Taliban with all the professionalism we could muster. And while the Islamist militants didn’t necessarily like us or understand our values, they weren’t openly hostile to us. As long as the two sides weren’t shooting at each other, we could and did drive over the lines (with our backsides tightly clenched) to report from both sides as genuinely neutral journalists.
But in the war in Afghanistan after 9/11, a few things happened that had a significance few of us recognised at the time. The first was a US airstrike that hit the Al Jazeera bureau. The US said it was a mistake, but the incident has never properly been investigated, and there are plenty of us who suspect it was because the bureau had extraordinary access to Al Qaeda sources. Then there was the murder of four journalists driving from Pakistan to Kabul. Among them was a very good friend of mine, the wonderful Italian freelance reporter Maria Grazia Cutuli. The leader of the group who was convicted of the killings said they carried them out on explicit orders by the Taliban leadership to go after journalists.
In effect, both sides came to regard journalists as legitimate targets in ways that we haven’t seen before. And the trends have continued ever since.
Since the War on Terror began, governments across the globe have used the “T” word to excuse all manner of attacks on human rights and press freedoms. It almost feels like a kind of globalised McCarthyism, where simply invoking terrorism is enough, in some cases, to get away with murder. And it is pretty easy to get away with murdering a journalist. Just as a brief aside, roughly 90 percent of all journalist murders remain unsolved.
I do not mean to minimise the risks of terrorism, or blame governments alone. The Islamic State’s executions of American freelancers James Foley and Steven Sotloff and the Japanese photographer Kenji Goto are some of the most shocking examples of the problem on the other side of the ledger.
But in this new world, to simply ask questions about the conflict, or to seriously investigate either extremism or the government’s handling of it, you make yourself a target. In the view of both sides, if you cross the lines in pursuit of our most fundamental principles of balance,
fairness and accuracy, you effectively join the enemy. As I said earlier, in effect, it has made the media itself the battleground. It is a chilling re-definition of Marshal McLuhan’s famous phrase – “the medium is the message”.
Now, for me this is not hypothetical. This is deeply personal. In 2015 I came out of 400 days in an Egyptian prison for collaborating with Islamic extremists.
In prison, I often thought about what we had done to upset the government. We were there to cover the unfolding political struggle between the remnants of the old Mubarak regime, the secular revolutionaries and the Muslim Brotherhood supporters. I’d been sent to fill in the bureau for a few weeks over the Christmas/New Year period, so I wasn’t an expert. In a way, I might not have minded being in prison so much if we had genuinely pushed the boundaries. I’ve done that plenty of times in places where my own radar was much more finely tuned; where I was far more aware of where the boundaries lay; of what might upset a government or a warlord; of what their response might be; and of what I could get away with.
But in Egypt we quite deliberately played with a straight bat. I’d only been there two weeks before our arrest, so I really wasn’t in any position to probe the edges. I was simply treading water. My work was, I’d have to admit, rather routine and certainly nothing special.
The trouble is that Egypt back then was the most polarized society I’d seen that wasn’t in a civil war.
Remember, barely six months before our arrest, the Muslim Brotherhood had been in power as the first legitimately elected government in the nation’s history. They remained the single largest and best organised political force in the country. So in the pursuit of balance and fairness, it made sense to pick up the phone and talk to them. It seems that that act alone made us targets of the government.
I am not going to suggest here that Western democracies like the US or Britain or Australia are anywhere near that situation. But what concerns me is that we are failing to defend those things that have genuinely helped keep successful democracies safe, stable and truly free. In the wake of the terror attacks of the past decade and a half, we’ve seen legislation introduced ostensibly to tackle terrorism. But there are several pieces of legislation that have dramatically served to limit the work that journalists do. I won’t go into them all, but I do want to give you just some examples that I think are troubling but also typical.
Here in Australia, we like to think of ourselves as a model liberal democracy – open and free, with deeply embedded protections for human rights and freedom of the press in particular.
And yet… and yet… over the past few years, we’ve seen a whole raft of laws being introduced, all in the name of national security, and most with bipartisan support, that all chip away at freedom of the press. The government has written a new law that allows the minister to declare any operation by the security services a Secret Intelligence Operation – an SIO. If a journalist or a source exposes information about an SIO, they can be thrown in prison for five years or 10 if it’s judged to be “aggravated disclosure”. The problem is that an SIO by definition is secret – so journalists looking into security service work will never know whether they are breaking the law until they wind up in court. That designation also remains in perpetuity, so even if we want to look back at the history of a particular branch of the security services, we run the risk of unwittingly winding up in prison.
Then there is the data retention bill that gives a host of government agencies not just the security services but others, like customs, the power to dig into the metadata of any Australian, without a warrant. Now, the (former) attorney general George Brandis said that’s necessary.
The government argues that it isn’t intended to shut down media scrutiny but rather to protect sensitive security operations and that might well be true, but you can imagine the effect that legislation will have on any reporter interested in keeping track of how the Australian government is using its intelligence and security services, and whether those operations are effective or not. And surely that’s got to be one of the most important functions of a watchdog media.
The media is the fourth estate, the fourth pillar of a healthy, functioning democracy alongside the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. The more you weaken any one of those, the more you destabilise the whole lot.
I have no problem with the need to keep our societies safe from attack and, like most journalists, I’ve got no interest in needlessly exposing security operations or risking the lives of people involved in protecting us. But there are plenty of existing restraints that have done a pretty good job of stopping that kind of reporting.
In the arguments about defending national security, I think we can lose track of some of the most basic principles that helped make our states some of the most prosperous, stable and peaceful places on earth.
Remember, the media is the fourth estate, – the fourth pillar of a healthy, functioning democracy alongside the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. The more you weaken any one of those, the more you destabilise the whole lot.
In my work in more authoritarian places I’ve often noticed that in the relationship between the government and the media, there is a sliding scale that defines the way power is distributed. If you take power from one, you tend to give it to the other.
In the current environment, it is all too easy, too tempting for governments to use the war on terror as a convenient excuse for dragging the slider to the right, to claim more power in the interests of national security, trading off the media’s oversight role in the process.
Even if we wanted to live in a police state, history suggests that can never really deal with terrorism, and that perversely the best way to tackle extremism of any sort is to keep an open, accountable society with a media free to do its job, interrogating not just governments, but those whose opinions tend to drift off into the political extremes.
Of course, everyone in the media is under stress at the moment. The digital revolution has radically changed the way media companies do business, and news that has never made money on its own is under enormous pressure. Everyone is fearful for their jobs – that’s one reason I’m in academia now. We all know people who’ve lost their jobs, and I bet there are a few here who are pretty worried about their own right now. There are plenty of experiments out there at the moment, but I have yet to hear of an alternative that makes me feel confident we’ve got a way of financing great journalism. But among all the stress and angst around adapting to the new digital environment and surviving against our competitors, I think we are failing to make a collective case for our role in our democracies. We have to remind both our audiences and our political leaders that a free, robust, healthy media is a fundamental reason why democracies have been so stable, prosperous and, yes – relatively safe.
So, my appeal to you today – to all of us who are in this business – is to take every opportunity to make the case for media freedom, to push back whenever there seems to be a move to limit the work that we do, to set aside our competitive instincts for a while and join our rivals to argue loudly and clearly about why we need to be able to get on with our jobs as freely as possible.
It was the French philosopher Albert Camus who said that a free press can, of course, be both good and bad but a press that is not free can never be anything but bad.
This is an edited version of Mr Greste’s Free Voices presentation. His book, Freeing Peter, written with his family who spearheaded an international media campaign to champion his release, was published in 2016. In 2017, his book, The First Casualty, published by Penguin, offers a “first-hand account of how the war on journalism has spread from the battlefields of the Middle East to the governments of the West”.