When an acclaimed journalist finds himself in the headlines

Natural curiosity and a yearning for discovery and adventure led Peter Greste to a life reporting the headline news from around the world. But in 2013, he became headline news when Egyptian authorities arrested him and two Al Jazeera colleagues for news reporting that was “damaging to national security”. 

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It comes as no surprise to find that acclaimed journalism academic Peter Greste was an adventurous young boy with a penchant for voicing his opinions. His father Juris, an architect and academic, says he used to come home from school with tales of perceived injustices and unfair treatment. Even at this stage, his parents mused that he might become a lawyer.

Born in Sydney in 1965, Peter grew up near Lane Cove River National Park and spent much time roaming through the bush there with his two younger brothers, Andrew and Mike. Like many Australian lads, he joined the local Boy Scouts and when the family moved to Brisbane, he signed up with the Indoo­roopilly Scouts.

In Year 12 he was made school captain and became a finalist in the Lions Club Youth of the Year Awards. He was awarded a Rotary International Exchange Scholarship and spent a year as an exchange student in South Africa, living with local families.

Peter Greste, appointed UNESCO Chair in Journalism and Communica­tions at the University of Queensland in February this year, delivered the PEN Free Voices lecture at the 2018 Sydney Writers’ Festival. The Australian-Latvian journalist and correspondent has worked as a correspondent for Reu­ters, CNN and the BBC and Al Jazeera, predominantly in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa.

On 29 December 2013, Peter and his Al Jazeera English colleagues, journalists Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, were arrested by Egyptian authorities, accused of news reporting that was “damaging to national security”. Six months later they were found guilty by the court, and sentenced to long gaol sentences, in Peter Greste’s case, seven years of incarceration. The men were seen inter­nationally as political prisoners due to the nature of the trial, the lack of applicable evidence presented and the sentences. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the authorities in Egypt to “prompt­ly release” the journalists. The US Secretary of State John Kerry was highly critical of the sentences, terming them “chilling and draconian”

The men appeal the sentence and eventually were granted a retrial. However, in a surprise turn of events, Peter was released from prison after more than 400 days behind bars and 1 February 2015 deported two weeks before the retrial began. As Peter explains, “Bizarrely, we were all defendants in the retrial, despite the fact that I had been deported on a presidential order. At the end of the retrial, we were all reconvicted, but with reduced sentences. Baher and Fahmy were pardoned and released about three weeks after the verdict. The pardon did not extend to me, so I remain a convict, with an outstanding prison sentence to serve.”

Since his return to Australia, Peter Greste has advo­cated widely for freedom of the press and free speech. In recognition of his efforts, he was awarded the 2015 Australian Human Rights Medal.

In 2016, Penguin published a biographical account of his family’s efforts to free him from incarceration entitled Freeing Peter, and a year later Peter’s book

The First Casualty, 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”, was also published by Penguin.

As a boy in Lane Cove and Brisbane, Peter grew to love the outdoors and adventurous activities, like kite boarding. His father Juris says, “While Peter could not be described as a thrill seeker, he has never shirked away from challenges and difficult projects.”

As it happens, his childhood recognition of social jus­tice and the need for a sense of purpose grew with him into young adulthood. When he finished high school and contemplated university study, he couldn’t decide what to do. He says he fell into journalism by default. Just before enrolment, he started to eliminate courses he knew he did not want to do, like architecture, account­ancy, law. “I came to journalism and after reading about the course, I knew it was what I wanted to do.”

Graduating from the Queensland University of Technology in 1987 with excellent results and a special award for photography, he first worked at a local televi­sion station in Shepparton in rural Victoria, moved to Darwin and then to Adelaide with Channel 10.

He says after a couple of years working in Adelaide, he found he was doing the same sort of stories over and over and determined to change his professional path. He had recently read Tim Bowden’s book One Crowded Hour about Australian photojournalist Neil Davis, known particularly for his work covering the Vietnam War. “It was an incredible inspiration,” he says. “Neil Davis had enormous integrity and covered big stories.” Peter says he wanted to do the same; he wanted to be a foreign correspondent.

So Peter quit Channel 10, went to London and offered to work as a freelancer for

the Ten Network. “I was willing to take the risk know­ing that if it didn’t work out I could ask mum and dad for a return ticket to Australia – part of the privilege of a middle-class upbringing.”

But he did not have to ask for a ticket home. By 1993, he was working for the BBC in London; two years later he got a posting to Kabul, covering the emergence of the Taliban and later, the start of the post 9/11 war.

He says he does not see himself as a risk taker and certainly not as an adrenaline junkie. While he ac­knowledges a desire for excitement and adventure, he is mindful of his own safety. “Over the years, I learned how to manage risk,” he says, explaining that being a foreign correspondent is a bit like being an electrician – both may be dangerous.

“I do not think I am impulsive, rather I regard myself as responsive.” After Afghanistan, he worked in Bosnia as a freelancer for Reuters, then the Middle East and Mexico City, Santiago and Buenos Aires for the BBC.

He acknowledges life as a perpetual nomadic cor­respondent takes a personal toll, especially of relation­ships, but in 2004 he followed his girlfriend to Kenya and once again set up as an intrepid freelancer, this time based in Mombasa. While he had covered the big stories of civil war in various African countries and the end of apartheid in South Africa, he took time out to work on a ‘soft’ story, the story of orphaned hippopotamus named Owen and his friend, 103-year-old Aldabra giant tortoise Mzee (wise old man in Swahili).

Owen was separated from his herd as a juvenile fol­lowing the December 2004

tsunami and was brought to the Haller Park nature reserve run by Peter’s partner Dr Paula Kahumbu. Hav­ing no other hippos to interact with, Owen immediately attempted to bond with Mzee, whose large domed shell and brown colour resembled an adult hippo. Mzee was wary of the little hippo at first but grew to like him and having Owen around him.

Peter later took the photographs for a 2006 book Paula co-authored about the pair, Owen and Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship. It was on The New York Times best seller list of children’s books for 48 weeks. It was, Peter says, the product of a unique experience and he does not see himself pursuing further adventures in children’s publishing.

Instead he is focused on his new appointment as a journalism academic and press freedom advocate. His role now includes teaching, research and engagement activities and campaigning on key issues in the media. He says that after spending more than a quarter of a century on the road, covering international affairs for the BBC, Reuters and Al Jazeera, it felt like the right time to change gears and give something back to journalism.

“With the University’s incredible research capacity, and the platform that the UNESCO Chair of Journalism and Communication gives me, I am also looking forward to using those resources to help shape the future of an industry that is so vital to a functioning democracy.”

 

Six months later they were found guilty by the court, and sentenced to long gaol sentences, in Peter Greste’s case, seven years of incarceration. The men were seen inter­nationally as political prisoners due to the nature of the trial, the lack of applicable evidence presented and the sentences. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the authorities in Egypt to “prompt­ly release” the journalists. The US Secretary of State John Kerry was highly critical of the sentences, terming them “chilling and draconian”

The men appeal the sentence and eventually were granted a retrial. However, in a surprise turn of events, Peter was released from prison after more than 400 days behind bars and 1 February 2015 deported two weeks before the retrial began. As Peter explains, “Bizarrely, we were all defendants in the retrial, despite the fact that I had been deported on a presidential order. At the end of the retrial, we were all reconvicted, but with reduced sentences. Baher and Fahmy were pardoned and released about three weeks after the verdict. The pardon did not extend to me, so I remain a convict, with an outstanding prison sentence to serve.”

Since his return to Australia, Peter Greste has advo­cated widely for freedom of the press and free speech. In recognition of his efforts, he was awarded the 2015 Australian Human Rights Medal.

In 2016, Penguin published a biographical account of his family’s efforts to free him from incarceration entitled Freeing Peter, and a year later Peter’s book

The First Casualty, 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”, was also published by Penguin.

As a boy in Lane Cove and Brisbane, Peter grew to love the outdoors and adventurous activities, like kite boarding. His father Juris says, “While Peter could not be described as a thrill seeker, he has never shirked away from challenges and difficult projects.”

As it happens, his childhood recognition of social jus­tice and the need for a sense of purpose grew with him into young adulthood. When he finished high school and contemplated university study, he couldn’t decide what to do. He says he fell into journalism by default. Just before enrolment, he started to eliminate courses he knew he did not want to do, like architecture, account­ancy, law. “I came to journalism and after reading about the course, I knew it was what I wanted to do.”

Graduating from the Queensland University of Technology in 1987 with excellent results and a special award for photography, he first worked at a local televi­sion station in Shepparton in rural Victoria, moved to Darwin and then to Adelaide with Channel 10.

He says after a couple of years working in Adelaide, he found he was doing the same sort of stories over and over and determined to change his professional path. He had recently read Tim Bowden’s book One Crowded Hour about Australian photojournalist Neil Davis, known particularly for his work covering the Vietnam War. “It was an incredible inspiration,” he says. “Neil Davis had enormous integrity and covered big stories.” Peter says he wanted to do the same; he wanted to be a foreign correspondent.

So Peter quit Channel 10, went to London and offered to work as a freelancer for

the Ten Network. “I was willing to take the risk know­ing that if it didn’t work out I could ask mum and dad for a return ticket to Australia – part of the privilege of a middle-class upbringing.”

But he did not have to ask for a ticket home. By 1993, he was working for the BBC in London; two years later he got a posting to Kabul, covering the emergence of the Taliban and later, the start of the post 9/11 war.

He says he does not see himself as a risk taker and certainly not as an adrenaline junkie. While he ac­knowledges a desire for excitement and adventure, he is mindful of his own safety. “Over the years, I learned how to manage risk,” he says, explaining that being a foreign correspondent is a bit like being an electrician – both may be dangerous.

“I do not think I am impulsive, rather I regard myself as responsive.” After Afghanistan, he worked in Bosnia as a freelancer for Reuters, then the Middle East and Mexico City, Santiago and Buenos Aires for the BBC.

He acknowledges life as a perpetual nomadic cor­respondent takes a personal toll, especially of relation­ships, but in 2004 he followed his girlfriend to Kenya and once again set up as an intrepid freelancer, this time based in Mombasa. While he had covered the big stories of civil war in various African countries and the end of apartheid in South Africa, he took time out to work on a ‘soft’ story, the story of orphaned hippopotamus named Owen and his friend, 103-year-old Aldabra giant tortoise Mzee (wise old man in Swahili).

Owen was separated from his herd as a juvenile fol­lowing the December 2004

tsunami and was brought to the Haller Park nature reserve run by Peter’s partner Dr Paula Kahumbu. Hav­ing no other hippos to interact with, Owen immediately attempted to bond with Mzee, whose large domed shell and brown colour resembled an adult hippo. Mzee was wary of the little hippo at first but grew to like him and having Owen around him.

Peter later took the photographs for a 2006 book Paula co-authored about the pair, Owen and Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship. It was on The New York Times best seller list of children’s books for 48 weeks. It was, Peter says, the product of a unique experience and he does not see himself pursuing further adventures in children’s publishing.

Instead he is focused on his new appointment as a journalism academic and press freedom advocate. His role now includes teaching, research and engagement activities and campaigning on key issues in the media. He says that after spending more than a quarter of a century on the road, covering international affairs for the BBC, Reuters and Al Jazeera, it felt like the right time to change gears and give something back to journalism.

“With the University’s incredible research capacity, and the platform that the UNESCO Chair of Journalism and Communication gives me, I am also looking forward to using those resources to help shape the future of an industry that is so vital to a functioning democracy.”


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