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Greste, Charlie and Press Freedom

Published 06 Feb 2015
Colin Chapman

Peter Greste’s case highlights a certain hypocrisy relating to press freedom.

The timing was intriguing. On the day Australian journalist Peter Greste was enjoying his first taste of freedom in Cyprus after enduring 401 days in a Cairo prison, Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, was hosting two important meetings.His first was with the president of the International Peace Institute, whose headquarters are just across the road from the United Nations in New York. Then he met with UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s special envoy.

Apart from discussing the threats posed by Islamist extremists, Shoukry had one purpose – winning support for Egypt’s bid for a non-permanent seat on the UNSC.

He was on shaky ground. Shoukry had gained unwelcome publicity when he featured prominently at the Je Suis Charlie unity rally in Paris following the Al-Qaeda attack on the headquarters of the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine that left 12 people dead.

A memorable quote from Christophe Deloire, the secretary-general of Reporters Sans Frontières, found its way into the world’s serious newspapers and major chanceries: “It would be intolerable [if] representatives from countries that reduce their journalists to silence profit from this emotional outpouring to…improve their international image…We should not allow the predators of the press to spit on the graves of Charlie Hebdo.”

In Brisbane, the energetic campaigners fighting to free Greste seized the moment. One of the campaigners tweeted @petergreste her outrage that Egypt’s foreign minister should try to align himself with promoters of a free press while his country was holding innocent journalists on trumped-up charges. This fuelled an already vigorous campaign. “Hypocrite” was the noun frequently used.

The campaign to free Greste was a model one, gathering international support as well as a concerted effort by the Greste family, both of Australia’s major political parties, civic society, a trade union, bloggers and a number of prominent individuals. The Egyptian military regime that seized power from the elected Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013 could not have anticipated such pressure from a far-off government about men employed by Arab media.

Governments are not always energetic when journalists run into trouble overseas, often opting for quiet diplomacy over publicity. Such a policy seldom works. In the Greste case, the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, and the DFAT secretary, Peter Varghese, were active immediately after Greste and his two colleagues were arrested. In the early period when Greste was being held without charge, the Australian ambassador demanded – and finally won – an agreement to see him, and diplomatic visits followed at the rate of two each fortnight.

When it became clear the unstated reason for the Egyptian Government’s action was the regime’s dislike of Al Jazeera, a satellite television network owned by the House of Thani (the ruling family of Qatar) the political fallout became more complicated. The Qataris supported the Brotherhood. More to the point, a number of journalistic investigations, notably one in the London Sunday Telegraph, suggested that some of the funds reaching Islamic State in Iraq and Syria came from Qatar. Egypt’s new government is a strong opponent of ISIS and its caliphate and therefore is ideologically backed by Australia.

But when the Egyptian court trying Greste and his associates for “broadcasting misleading news” and supporting the Brotherhood found the Al Jazeera trio guilty, sentencing the Australian to seven years imprisonment, foreign minister Bishop let rip: “The Australian government simply cannot understand it based on the evidence that was presented,” she said. “The Australian government is shocked at the verdict. We are deeply dismayed that a sentence has been imposed and appalled at the severity of it.” Bishop said the verdict “does not support Egypt’s claim to be on a transition to democracy.”

Petitions were handed in to the Egyptian president’s office in Cairo, the Media Alliance initiated a campaign and the Australian Institute of International Affairs played its part with a letter to DFAT’s Varghese. Prominent journalists like the ABC’s PM presenter Mark Colvin tweeted and re-tweeted. US secretary of state John Kerry, while supporting the Egyptian government against the jihadis, pressed the case for a free press on a visit to Cairo. President Obama called for the journalists’ release.

As the campaign intensified a retrial was ordered, but may never take place. With Greste now pardoned, the other two look set to be released.

But even if that happens, the story does not end there. There is an unfortunate twist in the case of Mohamed Fahmy, one of those imprisoned with Greste. Fahmy holds dual Canadian and Egyptian citizenship and worked for The Los Angeles Times and CNN before joining Al Jazeera as Egypt bureau chief. He says he only took the job as a challenge after the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood. He is now very critical of his employer.

According to his family, quoted by the eminent writer on the Middle East, Robert Fisk, Fahmy complained several times to Al Jazeera – after the authorities closed their office in Cairo – that they should not try to operate from the Marriott Hotel in the city and pretend that they could play “hide and seek” with the police. Fahmy, says Fisk, had actually demonstrated against the Muslim Brotherhood, when it was in power. It would seem there might be some justification that the three were imprisoned because, as Fahmy puts it, Egypt wanted to teach Qatar a lesson.

Since returning home Peter Greste has not talked about returning to Al Jazeera, but he has stressed concern about those he left behind. That, of course, is the big story. Last year, across the world, 221 journalists were imprisoned: the second worst year since records have been kept.

The annual census by the independent Committee to Protect Journalists (CPR) listed China as the worst offender (40), followed by Iran (30). Of those who showcased prominently their support for Charlie and press freedom in Paris, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have the worst records. Particularly bad is Saudi Arabia, which sentenced Raif Badawi, founder and editor of secularist website Free Saudi Liberals, to ten years imprisonment, a fine of about $300,000 and 1000 lashes for insulting Islam.

The lashes are administered at the rate of 20 each Friday. As he languishes in the hell of a Saudi jail, he must wish he could benefit from a campaign with the intensity of the one that freed Peter Greste. And those who care about press freedom are left remembering that despite one success we are still fighting a losing battle.

Colin Chapman is founder and editor-in-chief of ASEAN Strategies, and immediate past president of the AIIA in New South Wales. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.