After 400 days in Egyptian jail, an Al Jazeera reporter is on a mission

Peter Greste won a 2011 Peabody Award for his documentary

Peter Greste doesn’t know where home is. The Australian Al Jazeera correspondent, formerly based in Kenya, covered East Africa for years before Egyptian authorities arrested him and two colleagues on terrorism charges in December 2013. Greste spent 400 days in a Cairo jail before being deported to Australia in February.

Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed were first convicted in June 2014. In a retrial that concluded last month, they were convicted again and sentenced to three years in prison—Greste, along with six additional Al Jazeera journalists outside the country, were sentenced in absentia. Renewed international outcry pressured Cairo to pardon and release Fahmy and Mohamed late last month. But the convictions still hang over Greste and his other colleagues.

For the last eight months, Greste has devoted himself to campaigning for Fahmy and Mohamed’s release. Now that they’re free, he has turned his attention to clearing his own name, and those of the other international journalists, who have not been pardoned. Their criminal records, however spurious, carry the risk of arrest in countries that have extradition treaties with Egypt.

Greste is also trying to return to journalism, though he won’t go back to Kenya for fear of detention. He’s instead stayed with family and friends in Australia since his release. “My things are still in Nairobi,” he says. “My bed is in Nairobi.” 

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Greste visited New York this week to lobby leaders attending the United Nations General Assembly to push Egypt to take action. He sat down with CJR on Thursday to talk about his fight for pardons and life after prison. 

CJR: Tell me a little bit more about why you’re here.

PG: We can’t move on with our lives with those convictions hanging over our heads. It’s very difficult for us to work and travel as correspondents because of the rather pernicious threat of international arrest warrants and the possible consequence of being sent back to Egypt. We also have unjust criminal records. As anybody with a criminal record knows, it’s a constant presence and it can really disrupt your life.

CJR: I imagine it’s a bit more difficult to explain yourself when you check certain boxes on certain forms. 

PG: Even getting into this country was a problem. As an Australian you have to fill in an online form to clear a Visa waiver scheme. It’s not a problem for most people, except there is a box that asks, “Have you ever been arrested?” And I have to say, “I was arrested on charges of aiding a terrorist organization, financing a terrorist organization, being a member of a terrorist organization, broadcasting false news to undermine national security. I was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison.” And then, I add in brackets, “But it was all garbage. Please Google me.” 

It wasn’t a huge problem, just a bureaucratic headache. That aside, our case has come to symbolize the much bigger issues of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and not just in Egypt. 

CJR: I’ve read you filed a formal legal request for pardons. Can you elaborate? 

PG: We couldn’t formally apply for pardon until all the other legal avenues had been exhausted. So my lawyers in Egypt have now sent the appropriate documents into the court. The Australian Foreign Ministry has supported that with a letter to the Egyptian Ministry of Interior. We’re now formally saying to President [Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi, “The ball is now in your court.”

CJR: When you say you’re lobbying leaders here in New York for the UN, what exactly does that entail?

PG: We haven’t wanted to confront President Sisi or the Egyptians. We don’t want to embarrass the government. But we also need to make sure that everyone who is meeting with them reminds them that this is an important issue that needs to be resolved. So we’ve been having meetings with diplomats, politicians, and other groups that have connections with Egypt. I met [UN Ambassador] Samantha Power, I met with Assistant Secretary of State [for Human Rights] Tom Malinowski, Julie Bishop, the Australian foreign minister, and others.

CJR: How do those meetings typically go? When I look at your case, I obviously understand the argument that you’re making. But for someone you’re trying to lobby, how do you make your case and how do they typically respond to it? 

PG: There has been, understandably, a lot of confusion around the details of what happened to us. A lot of people assume that, because Fahmy and [Mohamed] were released and pardoned, that the rest of us were also pardoned. What we need to do is bring everyone up to date and make very clear not just that there were seven people convicted in absentia whose convictions still stand, but the very practical effects it has on our lives and what it means for the broader issues.

CJR: One of the concerning things for me, when I look at your case and cases in Turkey and Iran, is not only have we seen an uptick in non-state actors targeting journalists, but it also seems we’re seeing state actors targeting foreign correspondents. What’s your take on that issue, and is that a distinction you’re trying to make to these leaders? 

PG: The problem with the conflict we have at the moment is that it’s a conflict over a worldview, over an “ism.” A friend of mine says the “War on Terror” is a war over an abstract noun—the definition is incredibly malleable. And in such a conflict over ideas, it’s the space where those ideas are transmitted and debated and argued about that’s become the battleground. So journalism is now the place where those ideas are being fought over.

Journalism, generally, is being targeted by governments using national security as an excuse to limit the work, the very legitimate and necessary work, of journalists, just as the extremists—the non-state actors—are targeting journalists who they see as challenging their worldview.

CJR: All of these nations have such important geopolitical roles. Western nations have huge security interests in Egypt, for example. From your conversations with diplomats or other officials, is that something they openly acknowledge?

PG: When a president or prime minister is sitting down and trying to decide how to manage policy, they’ve got a general sitting down on one side saying, “If we don’t engage or support the Turks then Syria is going to spill over and we end up with a massive security crisis.” And then you’ve got some human rights advocates on the other side saying, “Yes, but they’re also making life very difficult for journalists.” As a president, the decisionmaking tends to be driven more by the generals more than it does by the human rights activists. That’s a really unfortunate fact of life.

My argument is that if we’re really serious about security, one of the fundamental lessons of stable Western democracies is that you need a free press. You need the free press as a safety valve, as a space for deconstructing both the policies of governments and [the] ideologies of extremists. And if you destroy that space for journalists, you actually polarize these societies and make things far worse. That’s a difficult, complex argument to make.

CJR: So do you think you’ve had success?

PG: We’ve been consistently surprised how easy it’s been to meet with high-level people. In that regard, it’s been very helpful. Obviously, we’ll only ever be able to call it a success when we get those pardons.

CJR: What are you up to now aside from all this? You alluded earlier to the fact that this affects what journalism you’re able to do.

PG: Since my release, up until a week ago, all of my energy was focused on getting my colleagues out of prison. I really haven’t really thought too much about it. Obviously, we’re still campaigning for the pardons. And that’s not something we can shy away from. But my plan right now is to do some writing. I’ve got a book project at the moment.

Once that’s sorted out, I plan to get back on the road. I’m going to be reporting again. I still haven’t worked out how that’s going to work. I can’t go back to my old job as East Africa correspondent. That’s just not going to work.

CJR: And that’s because of extradition treaties? 

PG: Partly. If we don’t get pardoned, it will make it extraordinarily difficult for me to work. There is an Africa-wide prisoner exchange treaty that applies to all states in the African Union. But even if we do get cleared, my life has really changed. The journalism that I want to do is much more big-picture journalism. I’ve also become an advocate for press freedom. Because of the voice that I’ve got, because of the fact that people seem to be paying attention, it feels as if it’d be an abrogation of responsibility to walk away from that. 

CJR: How do you look back at that period in your life when you were in prison? Is it still surreal? How do you begin to digest that? 

PG: You can get through these things if they have meaning to you. I read a book in prison whose argument was, He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. In other words, as long as you’ve got a reason to endure the suffering, then you always find a way through it. For me, the whole issue of press freedom, that became my why. A lot of what I’m doing now is retrospectively applying meaning to those 400 days. It was tough, make no mistake, but it also was something that’s become a defining moment in my life. I’ve felt that it’s given me a sense of purpose that I didn’t have before.

CJR: Have you had a chance to speak to Fahmy and Mohamed now that they’re out?

PG: Yes. They’re overjoyed, though it’s taking them time to process it. It was the same for me. When I was released, it happened very quickly. It’s a bit like Christmas. When kids come up to Christmas, they’re all excited—it’s the lead-up to Christmas that’s actually the whole thing. There’s this big explosive moment on Christmas Day when you discover all of your presents and have all these questions. And it takes a little bit of time to actually figure out what’s going on.

It took about four or five days for it to really sink in for me. I understood it intellectually, but feeling it in your gut takes time. And I know it’s taking a little bit of time for those guys, too, to translate the idea of freedom into a feeling of freedom.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.