Courageous, inspirational and passionate are perhaps a few words that could be used to describe Australian journalist and correspondent, Peter Greste. Greste had spent over two decades reporting from some of the world’s most volatile hotspots, when he found himself suddenly arrested during a short-term assignment in Egypt. This experience, along with extensive insight into the ways in which the role of the media has changed within the global War on Terror, has led to the production of his thought-provoking book, The First Casualty: From the frontlines of the global war on journalism. We chat to Greste in the midst of his supporting tour.
Hi Peter, thanks for taking some time to chat. To begin, I’ll delve straight in. You were caught up in an event some years ago which saw you imprisoned in Egypt for 400 days, can you tell me a bit about the events that led to this incident and what this experience was like for you?
I was only in Egypt for a pretty short period of time – I was just covering the Al Jazeera bureau over the Christmas and New Year period. I was only literally, well not literally… I was figuratively treading water for the bureau. There was an ongoing political crisis in Egypt – there was conflict between the Muslim brotherhood, which had been asked at (sic) about six months earlier and the government – an interim government which was obviously put in place by the military – and there were a lot of protests on the streets and so on, so we were basically keeping watch over that. The government would make a statement – would make some changes to the constitution to court the opposition and to get some kind of reaction, which led to some analysts to make change of it all, so it was pretty routine journalism. There was nothing overly controversial involved, so I really wasn’t expecting any problems when there was a knock on the door on 28 December 2013.
That night I was getting ready to go out for dinner with a friend of mine, but I had absolutely no sense that there was any issue, or any problem. And then I discovered that we were being hauled off, under arrest and thrown in prison on terrorism charges. It was pretty confronting, I thought it was a mistake initially – I thought it was going to be over in a pretty short space of time, I thought maybe someone’s misread the room number on the search warrant. The problem was between what we were accused of doing, which was basically being propagandists for terrorists and what we actually did, which was pretty routine journalism, so I really couldn’t understand why I wound up in that position.
And we’re now living in a time where more than 1500 journalists have lost their lives in the line of duty since 9/11 and our trust in the media is being lost, while fake news is prevalent. Why do you feel this is and what do you think has led to this?
I think this is due to a whole host of reasons, but the one that concerns me is – there’s been a lot of talk around the impact of the digital environment and the digital world, on journalism – and I think that obviously has a big impact on the way we work, but to my mind what’s happened is wars before 9/11 pretended to be over tangible things, stuff you could put your finger on, whether it was land, or water, or ethnicity. And in those kinds of conflicts journalists were observers, we weren’t participants to those kinds of conflicts but we had legitimacy, we had a legitimate role on the battle field as independent, neutral observers. Whereas what 9/11 did was turned the world from wars over tangible things, to war over ideas and in that war over ideas, the place where ideas are transmitted – which is the media by definition – becomes part of the battle space and so, journalists are no longer regarded as just independent, neutral observers. We become participants, we become agents for the battle. And so, we’ve become targets by both extremists on one side and militants on one side, to governments, who are stretching the term terrorism to include pretty much whatever they want it to include – and that’s exactly what happened to us in Egypt.
Coming back to your time spent imprisoned – on your 400th day you were finally freed. Can you explain to me what kind of emotions and thoughts you experienced on this day?
It was a very strange one. I was in Cairo getting ready to launch a hunger strike on the day that I was released, and I didn’t think the authorities were serious, I thought they were just messing around with us – I thought they were playing games with us and they were planning to hold us in for a lot longer. My brother was due for a visit on that day and I was going to tell him that we were going to have to start a hunger strike, to do something about this, to step up. I was running up and down the corridor of the cell block – which is where I used to try and get a little bit of exercise – when one of the guards calls me over and wants to speak to me, so I went and saw the prison warden and he said ‘pack your things, you’re going’. And I said, ‘well, what do you mean?’ and he said ‘the embassy is due here in half an hour, get your stuff, you’re going home.’ It was so surreal, it’s almost a bit like Christmas – when you’re a kid at Christmas, you know it’s coming, you build up for it, you think about it, you plan for it and the morning of Christmas you wake up early and you dive into your presents and you kind of have this great, big celebration on the day. Whereas if you woke up as a kid and discovered quite unexpectedly all of these gifts at the end of your bed, you’d think ‘hang on a minute, what’s going on? Are these really for me? Am I going to get into trouble if I open them?’, you know, you’re just not quite sure how to attack it all. And that was pretty much how it was for me.
And all of this and many more experiences and insight have led you to produce your book, The First Casualty, why did you feel it was so important that these experiences and this insight were shared with the world?
I always thought if it’s just my story – the story of what happened to us in Egypt – then it really wasn’t worth writing about. There are far too many journalist memoirs and prison memoirs, people have been through far more extreme stuff than I have and are by far better writers, but I felt the story was only worth telling if it actually told us something bigger about the world around us and in this case, in what’s happened to journalism since 9/11. And so, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that what had happened to us was part of a much bigger trend and as I thought about it I realised there was that narrative, there was the story that wasn’t just about us. It is about what’s happening more broadly, in Turkey and other authoritarian states and guess what, in the United States and Australia as well.
For those who are yet to read The First Casualty, how would you best summarise it and why is it a must-read?
There are two twin stories, parallel stories – the story of what happened to us in Egypt, but also the story of the way that journalism more broadly has just been a target in the war on terror, by all parties of conflict – whether it’s extremists who take the heads off journalists when they stray into their territory, or by governance who are criminalising the kinds of things that journalists would have in the past had the responsibility to cover. I think it’s a must read, because I’d like to think it’s a good read in its own right, it’s a good yarn, but also because it is important, it does cut to the core, it’s something that I think we all need to think about.
Written by Helena Metzke
Release: The First Casualty is now available for purchase from all good book stores.