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Peter Greste: we must show unity in the fight for a free press

20 February 2015

Meditation, daily exercise, knowing he had the support of his family, colleagues and the world's media helped Peter Greste, the Al Jazeera journalist, survive 400 days in a series of Egyptian prison cells.

Speaking to a crowd of journalists at the Frontline Club in London, he said he wasn't yet sure if his experience had changed him as a journalist, but it had certainly changed him as a person. From now on, he would back the campaign for a free press and would speak out for press freedom.

Looking tired, but in good health, he told the audience his experiences in Cairo, from his arrival in the city, to the police bursting into his hotel room, to being handcuffed and moved from cell to cell, first in solitary confinement and later sharing with his Al Jazeera colleagues.

He recalled the trial when he was sentenced to seven years for crimes he had not committed and the black day when his hopes of a presidential pardon were dashed.

When he was told he could pack his bags and go, he said, his joy at being released was overshadowed by the fact his colleagues, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, faced a retrial on Monday 23 February, and many other local journalists were still languishing in jail.

He described the day he had to say goodbye to Baher – Mohamed Fahmy was in hospital at the time: 

"When you spend that length of time boxed together, it is as close as being a brother."

They gave each other a big hug and Peter left, going first to Cyprus, before flying on to Australia to be reunited with his parents.

Peter Greste and his Al Jazeera colleagues were picked up by the police in December 2013. What followed was a world-wide media campaign to get them freed, largely played out in social media, but also at rallies, demonstrations and minutes of silence, using the #FreeAJstaff hashtag and the symbol of taped mouths.

He appreciated all the support from the press, he added, with even rival news organisations doing their best to publicise their plight and put pressure on the Egyptian authorities.

In many ways he was lucky – he had good diplomatic representation and worldwide publicity – for many other journalists, this is not the case, he pointed out

Andy Smith, NUJ joint-president, who met the Egyptian ambassador in London to lobby for the freedom of the Al Jazeera three and the jailed local journalists, painted a grim picture of the situation around the globe. Journalists are killed and imprisoned for doing their jobs by despotic regimes, drug cartels, organised crime and people who want the truth suppressed and where corruption and attacks on civil liberties go unreported.

Conflict zones, such as Syria and Ukraine, were not the only places where being a journalist was a dangerous job. Many journalists in Central America, Mexico, Somalia, Zimbabwe and Eritrea were thrown into jail without trial, and often never heard of again. He said:

"What is now happening, as with the case of journalists being captured by ISIS, is that journalists are seen valuable targets because of their communications skills, even if their work is produced under duress.
"The other development is that cuts in foreign correspondent posts means newspapers and broadcasters are increasingly using freelance journalists without knowing how well they are trained or supported in these dangerous situations."

Peter Greste agreed:

"These are very difficult times for journalism, the business model is broken. It is increasingly competitive so freelances are putting themselves at greater and greater risk to show they are capable of working in these environments – but they are doing so without the protection of working for an employer who can help when things go wrong."

He was not bitter or angry after his experience, but it had made him realise there needed to be unity within the journalist community to tell the story about the risks to freedom of speech throughout the world.

Tags: , peter greste, mohamed fahmy, baher mohamed, al jazeera, egypt, press freedom, international, broadcasting, journalists detained, journalists freed, mexico, somalia, zimbabwe, eritrea, syria, ukraine