Peter Greste at the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival

Professor Peter Greste
Professor Peter Greste

Since emerging from an Egyptian prison in February 2015 after spending 400 days behind bars on trumped-up terrorism charges, former foreign correspondent Peter Greste has been deploying his experiences to walk people through a bigger narrative about a global war on journalism.

He’s written a book, The First Casualty, and is currently touring writers' festivals explaining how journalists and freedom of the press, and by extension democracy itself, are under attack.

The threats come from both sides of the War on Terror: from authoritarian regimes that kill or imprison journalists and liberal democracies that silence them via legislative clampdowns in the name of national security.

And then there’s the shock wave of the digital revolution, which has cut a swathe through newsrooms and allowed fake news and click bait to proliferate.

“I think we’re sleepwalking into a pretty serious crisis,” Peter says. “I think we need to be more alive to the role the media plays.

“Even though people might not like what they’re getting out of the media, they need to understand what the alternative looks like. And it isn’t pretty.”

There’s a fantastic quote from Albert Camus: A free press can be good or bad, but without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.

Peter Greste

On Saturday June 9, Peter Greste will give the keynote address at the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival and then participate in a panel discussion about the future of journalism.

He says he is not at all traumatised by having to tell his story repeatedly.

“No, I’ve never felt particularly scarred or damaged by it. My feeling is that every time I speak about it, it’s a way of flipping the middle finger, of saying you tried to shut me down but you’ve done the opposite, you’ve given me a platform.”

One way Peter coped with his incarceration was by committing to a regime of exercise and meditation to keep himself strong physically and mentally, even when crammed into small spaces for long periods.

He kept his spirits strong too, by finding comfort and purpose in the realisation that there was something larger than himself that he needed to fight for.

In The First Casualty, he wrote: “The gap between what we are accused of doing and what we actually did is so vast that it could never be about us as individuals. Instead it has to be about something much bigger – about what we have come to represent.” 

That “much bigger” thing was freedom of the press, and more broadly, freedom of speech,  those bastions of democracy by which those in power are held to account.

“It isn’t just Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed who are in the cage,” Peter wrote, “it is every journalist working within any regime that considers using these tactics to silence public debate and critical voices.”

Peter says his efforts on behalf of media freedom are an integral part of his new job as professor at the University of Queensland.

With the UNESCO Chair in Journalism and Communication, he is tasked with educating the next generation of journalists, researching media freedom issues and investigating and advocating on behalf of a free press.

“It gives me a kind of authority to speak in ways I wouldn’t otherwise have done,” he says. “The work itself is fairly open. I don’t have any courses to run, I don’t have any particular essays to mark.”

Earlier in May, while being awarded the Australian Press Council’s 2018 Press Freedom Medal, he launched The Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom.

Its mission is to preserve media freedom in Australia and to campaign for a freer press and journalists’ safety in the Asia Pacific region.

However, Peter’s own freedom remains curtailed.

“I’m still technically a convicted terrorist,” he says. “So any country that has an extradition treaty with Egypt is potentially a problem.”

He laughs when asked if he uses the map that the Chasers Media Circus devised to highlight where in the world it was dangerous for him to travel, then affirms his determination to keep travelling.

“To do what my lawyers are recommending and basically burn my passport would be to accept a form of glorified house arrest.”