Committed to the cause

After 400 days in prison, former foreign correspondent Professor Peter Greste reveals how being silenced by the Egyptian government only helped to amplify his message of press freedom.

In all his years reporting from war-torn regions across the world, Professor Peter Greste never expected that he would become the story. 

But his life changed forever in 2013 after he and Al Jazeera English colleagues were arrested while on assignment in Egypt.

Charged with threatening national security, Professor Greste spent 400 days in prison and unwittingly became the centre of an international media storm and a global face in the fight for press freedom.

“Being the subject of the story was odd. I have always been the storyteller and not the story. But I recognise that my story itself is interesting to people, and that if people can learn about press freedom because of it, then I will tell my story".

Since his release, Professor Greste has used his platform to fiercely advocate for freedom of the press. According to Freedom House, press freedom globally has declined to its lowest levels in 13 years as a result of increasing threats to journalists. To Professor Greste, that is deeply troubling.

“In the war on terror, governments have seen licence to define national security and terrorism so broadly that, in a lot of cases, it’s actually had the effect of silencing press freedom. And in the process, damaging the way in which democracy works.

“If we keep chipping away at press freedom, keep limiting the work that journalists are able to do, and keep creating blind spots that journalists can’t look into, then we create opportunities for things to go wrong and for bad stuff to happen. I feel very passionate about maintaining that pressure. We should be moving forward on this, not backwards.” 

While the 24-hour news cycle has allowed more news to be placed into the public discourse than ever before, Professor Greste believes that it has also brought about a lack of verification and, ultimately, a decline in journalistic standards. 

“One of the problems is that in this digital world, we have so many sources of information that we have the illusion of being well-informed – but quantity isn’t the same as quality. You cannot have a strong democracy without strong journalism.” 

Australia is currently ranked 19 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, but that is not to suggest our nation hasn’t had its challenges.

As Professor Greste explains, threats to investigative journalism and to whistleblowers are making it increasingly difficult to hold politicians to account. 

“I recognise that the media itself has a lot of work to do to recover public trust. But we have a responsibility to be informed about what politicians are doing in our names. The means through which we traditionally understand what is being done is through the media – by constantly investigating, challenging and questioning the work that politicians and civil servants are doing on our behalf.

“A lot of that is quite open and quite transparent, but a lot of the uncomfortable stuff tends to get squirrelled away. And that’s why we need robust press, so that we can understand what is taking place.” 

Now working in the role of UNESCO Chair of Journalism and Communication at UQ’s School of Communication and Arts, Professor Greste hopes to give the next generation of journalists some of the benefit of his extensive experience. 

“This role means I can speak to journalists and journalism students and share some of the lessons I have learnt. And I want to remind journalists about why the job matters and, hopefully, inspire them to really drill down and do that job with passion and commitment.

“If I could pass on any advice, I think I would say to be fearless in reporting. Cover what you believe in, rather than what you feel you should, or what other people think you ought to cover.”

Hear more from Professor Peter Greste on the ChangeMakers podcast or subscribe to the series on iTunes.

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