Our case made it clear what it looks like when press freedom is lost: Peter Greste #CBAAConf

At the CBAA Conference today Peter Greste told his own story about being imprisoned for doing the work of journalism.

250 journalists are currently in prison around the world for their work as journalists. Many have been charged with anti-state activities such as treason, sedition and terrorism just for doing their jobs.

While press freedom is a world issue, and has also become a prominent national issue in Australia, it is also a grass roots issue.

Greste made his speech relevant to the community broadcasting sector with examples how local council staff are becoming afraid to talk to their community radio station for fear that they may be punished, after the examples of raids on the ABC and Anika Smethurst.

Telling the story of his own imprisonment, Greste said:

“Terrorism was the charge I was arrested under in Egypt.

“At the time the government of the Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown, we were trying to talk to all of those involved, including the Muslim Brotherhood so that people could understand what was happening.

“We took the government at its word that it was genuinely interested in press freedom.

“But the night I was arrested the police burst in as I opened the door, ransacked my room and arrested me. I had been detained before, the way these things work is that someone sends the police to rattle you cage if there is a story they don’t like, but then you are released.

“This was different, I realised this was not the normal situation I had been in before.

“We had been accused as being part of a terrorist organisation and spreading false news…

“Why our case became so significant was that we embodied the abstract idea of press freedom. Our case made it clear what it looks like when press freedom is lost.

When you understand this you can understand why the AFP Raides were so confronting.”

Greste explained that Anika Smedhurst had done a story on the Australian Signals Directorate. There was nothing in Anika’s story that damanged national security, and the story was in the public interest, according to Greste. “This is part of democracy, it is how a democracy works, we have these kind of discussions in public.”

In the ABC case the national broadcaster had been reporitng on allegations about Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan. There was nothing that undermined national security and it was genuinely in the public interest. “The special forces are operating in our name, so we need to understand how they are operating. If they breaks the laws of war we need to discuss it in a democracy,” said Greste.

“I’m not suggesting Australia will become Egypt any time soon, bum make no mistake, the political imperatives that drove Egypt’s move to shut down embarrassing journalism are the same as are being used in Australia to silence uncomfortable journalism.”

Australia has criminalised journalism with a raft of security laws. There have been 82 laws introduced since 9/11 that impact on journalists, more that any other democracy on earth.

Greste gave the example of section 35P of the ASIO Act which prevents community radio broadcasters from even asking questions about something that has happened in their community and that that want to report on air. You can be imprisoned for up to 5 years for this offence.

Another example is the Data Retention legislation. “It was sold to use as the ability to intercept terrorist communications. It allows the government to request records about the websites you look at, the emails you receive and the numbers you dial.”

The regime that is supposed to protect journalists and their sources “doesn’t actually work,” according to Greste, because there are so many agencies that can access this metadata. “There have been over 300,000 requests from over 80 government agencies for information about all sorts of things, including the location data of individuals by local councils to see whose dog may have poo’ed on the sidewalk.” 

“These laws would not be a problem if they were only going after terrorists and spies, but they’re not,” he said.

“Look at the examples of Witness K, Bernard Collarey, his lawyer who is also charged under that act. These are not issues of national security, they are about stories that are politically embarrassing.

“You might also remember au-pair gate, where Peter Dutton was giving out visas. It was not about national security, it was just politically embarrassing.

“One of the main reasons why there has been not enough pressure about this is that we have no constitutional guarantee of press freedom. We think that the idea of a media freedom act is the first step, to embed the principles of press freedom into our country’s DNA. It stops short of a constitutional amendment, which is difficult to achieve, but it will enshrine a benchmark to protect press freedom in ways we don’t have at the moment… We also need to make changes to our national security laws.”

“We live in one of the safest places on the planet because we have already had press freedom for a long time, it is one of the pillars of society that has made us safe in the first place. I have lived and worked in places where press freedom is not secure.

“This is where you come in. When commercial media is disintegrating under the changing pressures, you are filling the gaps.

In the growing number of media desserts, we have oases of community broadcasting where there can be democratic conversations about important issues. The places where big stories start is at local level, that’s where issues bubble up. So many stories start at the grass roots level.

“What you do is vital to our democratic health. You foster debate and give voice to people that would otherwise go unheard. Your voices are vital to debate and national security.”

Listen to Peter Greste’s presentation here.

Conference program here.



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