Australian journalist Peter Greste was imprisoned in Egypt for supporting a terrorist organisation and producing “fake news”. His trial would have made Kafka blush
In 2012, the Egyptian people ousted their longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak, the most visibly successful moment of the Arab Spring movements that had spread across North Africa and the Middle East. A new leader was democratically elected, the head of the Freedom and Justice Party, Mohamed Morsi. His party was the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group with its ties all over the region.
Once elected, Morsi gave himself remarkable executive powers, claiming that without them, the new democratic government would be undone by treacherous judges who were still aligned with the deposed ruler Mubarak. Morsi proposed a new constitution, which would cement his broad powers, that he put to a referendum. The referendum passed with a voter turnout of around 35%, amid very loud claims of fraud from international observers. Huge protests against Morsi’s increasingly dictatorial leadership regressed into violence between pro– and anti–Morsi factions, providing a screen for a rogue group led by the chief of the army, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to remove Morsi from power and suspend the constitution on July 3, 2013. They declared the Chief Justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt, Adly Mansour, interim president, arrested Morsi and shut down four TV stations said to be supporting Morsi during the protests.
Morsi’s supporters and the Muslim Brotherhood continued their protests throughout June and July, demanding the leaders of the coup return power to the democratically elected leader. On August 14, the Egyptian government coordinated a raid with its security forces, targeting two sites in Cairo that were bases of the Muslim Brotherhood: a city square and a mosque. Ostensibly, they were dispersing protesters. This dispersal left almost 600 of them dead. The crackdown on Morsi’s affiliated Muslim Brotherhood had escalated. It was designated a terrorist group. By 2014, it’s reported that more than 16,000 of its members are imprisoned in Egypt.
One nation in the region broke away from its neighbours, most of whom had reacted positively to news of Morsi’s demise, in denouncing the coup: Qatar. It had fostered good relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and provided some of its leaders with protection after they were removed from power. The global news organisation Al Jazeera, based in Doha and funded by the Qatari state, became a new target for Egypt’s broad suppression of dissent.
Peter Greste, a journalist for Al Jazeera English, was sent from his base in Nairobi to Cairo to report on the situation in December, 2013. Three weeks in, he was arrested, together with an Egyptian-Canadian colleague Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian Baher Mohamed, for reporting “false news” out of their hotel room. After a month in solitary connement, they were charged with: being members of a terrorist organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood; funding the Muslim Brotherhood; broadcasting false news; and not having the proper broadcast licences. Fahmy was accused of being the ringleader of a terrorist cell, bent on taking down the Egyptian government.
Born in Sydney, Greste has worked around the globe for BBC, Reuters and the CNN, before joining Al Jazeera n Africa in 2004. His life as a foreign correspondent is the stuff of Ben Affleck movies. He delivered satellite broadcasting gear from Uzbekistan to Kabul across rugged, snow-covered mountains on donkeys. Just before the election that would end apartheid in South Africa, Greste interviewed the isolated Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whose supporters had only days before strung up the dead bodies of election officials on the city’s lamp poles. His colleagues describe him as a man of great integrity, a true humanitarian whose exceptional work elevated the voices of war-torn and poverty-stricken communities around the world. His father Juris, a Latvian who migrated to Sydney and now lives in Queensland, wonders whether Peter’s will to become a premier foreign correspondent is in his blood:
Latvians have been the driftwood of global political storms. My own ancestors in almost every generation have suffered. In my own time, World War II brought us here. Latvians, culturally, have always had to keep their antennae out beyond their borders.
The allegations against Greste and his colleagues were bizarre. The three journalists each held commanding reputations of integrity and independence. They were said to be running a “media centre” in their hotel room, where they were producing fabricated news videos in cahoots with Muslim Brotherhood leaders. The Egyptian government made a statement, confirming the arrests of the three for committing acts “damaging to national security”. As Greste explained in letters to his family, the three did speak with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation he described as “the single largest and best organized social and political force in Egypt”. As a journalist, he asked, “how do you accurately and fairly report on Egypt’s ongoing political struggle without talking to everyone involved?”
It quickly emerged that Greste, Fahmy and Mohammed were the subjects of a proxy war between their Qatari news organisation Al Jazeera and the Egyptian government. When the Muslim Brotherhood was deposed by a military coup, many of its prominent members fled to Qatar. The Al Jazeera network’s coverage of the coup and its purges was predictably harsh and damning. The Egyptian government was quick to lump the two together in a transnational conspiracy bent on destabilising the new government. The three journalists in a Cairo hotel room presented an easy method to punish Al Jazeera, and by extension, the small but prosperous emirate of Qatar.
The three spent months languishing in a tiny jail cell together. In the lead up to their trial, their faces were all over Egyptian TV: their arrest had been videotaped and cut with the shadowy and sinister soundtrack to Thor: The Dark World, in a TV spot that took heavy cues from America’s Worst Serial Killers.
In Australia, there was a quiet optimism that the court would see the allegations as unfounded and set the three free. Hope was quickly dashed by the chief judge, who wore black sunnies throughout the entire indoor trial. The lead prosecutor, specially selected by the government, presented evidence to the court linking the Al Jazeera trio to 16 agents of the Muslim Brotherhood. This included hundreds of pages of secret lists of seized equipment said to be integral to their role as terrorists. This equipment designated as only fit for terrorist purposes featured a Mac and a number of USB thumb drives.
The prosecutor went on to show the court many hours of terrorist video footage seized by Egyptian police, framed as fabricated news stories the three had made to undermine the government. Much of the footage predated the trio’s time in Cairo. It had not even been produced by Al Jazeera but had come from the BBC, YouTube, CNN, and what could have been Shutterstock. Highlights from these hours of video included moving footage of horses galloping and the music video to Goyte’s 2012 hit song ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’. Before the trial had begun, the chief judge had demanded Greste pay $170,000 to view this same video footage to be presented in evidence.
The verdict was handed down. The court was unequivocal: these three had perverted journalism itself in a tryst with, you guessed it, “the devil”. They falsely depicted Egypt in a state of civil war. They colluded with the Muslim Brotherhood every step of the way. Greste and Fahmy were given a sentence of seven years each, Mohamed was given 10 years. Fahmy’s legal counsel, international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, described the whole ordeal as a “show trial”:
Not a single digital or hard copy piece of evidence showed the journalists were in any way linked to the Brotherhood. Not a shred of evidence showed that any of the journalists gave the Brotherhood money or other material support. There was not even an allegation by the prosecution that any particular video played by Al Jazeera had been doctored, let alone proof that it was so.
There was no case to be made at all. Another of the prosecutors nonchalantly admitted as much during a break in questioning, telling Fahmy: “It’s just bad timing, this is all about Qatar and Al Jazeera, nothing to do with you.”
The presence of a courtroom and a judge had given the preposterous charade a passing legitimacy. We’re not a totalitarian regime, it said to the world, we have an independent judiciary and everything. Egypt’s ambassador to Australia, Hassan El-Laithy, empathised with Greste’s family but insisted that “this is the rule of law”. The rule of law in Egypt is hard to pin down: a trial in March, 2014 handed 528 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood the death penalty in under 100 minutes. The same judge overturned 492 of the 528 death sentences a few days lat- er. When news broke that Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed were granted a retrial in early 2015, the reception in Australia was predictably muted and grave. A retrial could help get them out — or help them get killed.
Throughout the 400-odd days Greste spent in an Egyptian prison, his parents, Lois and Juris, together with his brothers Andrew and Michael, were his public face. Their graceful and articulate manner, on display through countless press conferences and interviews with journalists, lent the whole effort to retrieve Greste a firm and dutiful air. The situation was dire. He could have easily spent years in jail. Their composition contributed to a longstanding, deep concern for Greste and his colleagues’ welfare and future, and fostered true empathy for their family’s unique trauma.
“Without making any kind of deep confession, I lament the loss of my life,” Juris said to The Australian. “We’ve lost a year and so have the boys,” continued Lois. “So have their families. It’s not just Peter. It’s his brothers, Andrew and Mike, and their wives and their children. There’s a cloud over our head 100% of the time. And you can’t walk away from the cloud.”
Letters Greste sent his family while in jail were published in The Guardian and provide a chilling window into his mind. His attachment to the few books and pen and paper he has becomes profound: “I want to protect them almost as much as I want my freedom back.”
His growing cynicism is difficult to read. He describes his initial attempt to convince the government that he is being caught in a political dispute that has nothing to do with him personally, that this is all truly a mistake:
I have sought, until now, to fight my imprisonment quietly from within, to make the authorities understand that this is all a terrible mistake, that I’ve been caught in the middle of a political struggle that is not my own… It is now clear that this is a dangerous decision. It validates an attack not just on me and my two colleagues but on freedom of speech across Egypt.
A retrial for Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed was announced on January 1. One month later, news broke that Greste was being deported to Cyprus, where he would meet his brother and the two would return to Australia.
“I can’t tell you how ecstatic I am to be here,” he said to a relieved and emotional family and press corps in Brisbane. “But of course this is all tempered… by a real worry for my colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed.”
There was no immediate reason given as to why Greste was released. Egyptian law says that deported foreigners are to be imprisoned or retried in their home countries, but at no point did Australia commit to imprison Greste. A hint can be found in the thawing relations between Qatar and Egypt. Qatar recently expelled a number of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders. It also conceded and shut down a pro-Muslim Brotherhood affiliate TV channel of Al Jazeera’s, Egypt Direct, after it was banned by the Egyptian government a year ago. Changes in regional geopolitics, which factor in responses to the rise of isis and the touchy bastards running Iran, are also cited as a key shift in how Qatar is seen by its Gulf neighbours, helping both dampen and redirect previous acrimony.
Greste’s release also improved the international reputation of Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, someone who coordinated a coup and followed it with waves of brutal political repression.
In one of his letters, Greste says, “journalists are never supposed to become the story… We are supposed to re- main in the background as witnesses to or agents for the news; never as its subject.” Against his will, his capture, his cruel treatment in prison, his farcical trial and inexplicable release have all become a commanding story. He is a special kind of foreign correspondent: one who is both the artefact and the storyteller, a remarkable event for us, but one that came at a great cost to him and his family.