In the line of fire
Jailed Australian journalist Peter Greste goes to trial in a Cairo court today. His arrest underlines the growing dangers faced by reporters just trying to do their job.
PETER Greste made his last live cross on Al Jazeera’s English network on Saturday December 28. “Egypt is still functioning pretty much as normal,” he said. “But what we’re seeing is a growing sense of unease, of disorder, of insecurity.”
Greste is normally based in Nairobi, Kenya; he had been in Egypt for two weeks of a three-week stint, filling in for a colleague over Christmas.
With the smoggy Cairo skyline behind him, he spoke of the hundreds of people arrested in recent days as police swept through the streets looking for protesters.
On December 24, the military-backed government had declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. Only six months earlier, it had formed the country’s ruling party under elected president Mohamed Morsi.
On screen, Greste said it wasn’t clear who had been taken into custody – whether they were Muslim Brotherhood members, sympathisers or simply bystanders – but all faced a maximum of five years in jail.
Their fate would now depend on the judges, he said: “It does look pretty draconian.”
He was broadcasting from the balcony of the Marriott Hotel, on the Nile, where the network had established a makeshift office. The next night, authorities raided the hotel.
They arrested Greste, along with the Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy and producer Baher Mohamed. The three have been imprisoned for 66 days. Their fate, too, now rests with the judges.
The journalists have been accused of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood, broadcasting false news to undermine state security, and working without accreditation. Fahmy – who is a Canadian-Egyptian dual citizen – and Mohamed are also accused of being members of the Brotherhood.
The managing director of Al Jazeera English, Al Anstey, describes the charges as “baseless, unacceptable, and wholly unjustified”.
“What is going on in Egypt right now is a trial of journalism itself, so it is critical that we remain resolute in calling for freedom of speech… and for the immediate release of all of Al Jazeera’s journalists,” he says.
The jailing of his employees has been reported all over the world, but in Egypt, it is only one incident among many. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York–based advocacy group, says press freedom has declined there more rapidly than in any other country.
Attacks on reporters had risen under Morsi’s presidency, and continued after the military-backed government took power in July. In 2013, half a dozen journalists were killed, dozens detained and scores assaulted. Al Jazeera was one of eleven news outlets raided.
Robert Mahoney, the committee’s deputy director, says a climate of state- and self-censorship has taken hold.
In that, Egypt is far from alone. The committee recently released its annual risk list, which highlighted increasing violence against journalists in Bangladesh and Russia, and new legislation stifling free speech in Ecuador, Liberia, Russia, Vietnam and Zambia.
In Hong Kong too, the committee says “media freedom is at a low point”. Last week, Kevin Lau Chun-to, former editor of the Ming Pao newspaper, was attacked and slashed with a meat cleaver, only days after thousands of people rallied against increasing censorship. His sacking as editor was one of the sparks for the protest.
In 1992, the committee began closely tracking the number of journalists killed around the world. Its tally has risen to 1044. Other advocates, such as the International News Safety Institute and the International Federation of Journalists, put the number significantly higher.
Until World War II, such fatalities were almost unheard of. Decade on decade, from the 1960s the number of journalists killed in conflict has risen steeply.
Imprisonment and kidnapping are also at record levels. Over 200 journalists spent the new year languishing in jail – that’s the second highest in the Committee’s records, behind 2012.
Mahoney says 80 journalists were kidnapped in Syria alone last year. About 30 of them are still being held there. “We’ve seen kidnappings in conflicts before – in certain parts of Somalia, in Afghanistan and Pakistan – but we haven’t seen anything on this scale.”
Robert Capa’s most famous photo, Falling Soldier, shows a Spanish republican soldier with one arm flung back, gun in hand, collapsing at the moment of his death. It was shot in 1936.
The Hungarian photojournalist would cover five wars before a landmine killed him in 1954 during the French Indochina war. By then, he had redefined conflict reporting.
“Capa put himself into a new position: between troops and incoming fire, often shooting fear’s effect on faces, or the fire’s effect on bodies,” says American journalist Frank Greve, who has written about the history of reporters’ deaths in combat. “After Capa, anything less was kind of boring.”
Capa was one of the first journalists to sidestep tight military control and censorship. Given that freedom, he took risks that few had taken before.
But since then, those risks have multiplied. While communications technology and travel have become drastically cheaper and faster, newsrooms and the public have required the stories to match.
Warfare too has changed, he argues. Reporters can find it hard to predict where bullets will come from, and can’t rely on combatants viewing them as impartial observers.
The reporters, photographers and citizen journalists in Syria today still produce work with Capa’s “hot immediacy”, Greve says. “But I suspect they spend more time risking their lives than he did.”
Dr Colleen Murrell is a former international news editor – she worked with Peter Greste at the BBC in the early 1990s. Now a journalism academic at Deakin University, Murrell researches the way foreign correspondents operate.
She says postings with a foreign bureau are the most coveted in the industry. Travelling to a danger zone has always been a way for young reporters to get a break. More people are trying their luck than ever before, but at the same time, those jobs are vanishing.
On-staff reporters always had the benefit of insurance, safety training and gear, and a support network if things went wrong. “Now it’s a lot more dangerous for a larger number of people,” Murrell says.
In the last two decades, a growing proportion of journalists’ fatalities have been among freelancers.
But Murrell says they’re beginning to organise. There are more than 4000 members of The Vulture Club, a hidden Facebook group where people exchange tips on safe border crossings, reliable interpreters and local conditions.
Likewise, the Frontline Club, a London-based network of foreign correspondents, recently established a freelance register and support collective.
Murrell says these two groups have also been pushing international media companies to take greater responsibility – either by not encouraging freelance contributors to go to dangerous places, or if they do go, ensuring they’re equipped to deal with the risks.
One way journalists can prepare is by undertaking hostile environment training. In mid-March, 20 reporters – of varying experience – will attend a seven-day intensive program in the Kanchanaburi region of Thailand, on the River Kwai. It’s coordinated by a company called Dynamiq, which works with Reuters and the ABC.
Shaun Filer has been running these courses for six years. Formerly a medic in the US Marines, and then a journalist, Filer leads his charges through sessions on emergency first aid and personal security.
The course culminates in a 24-hour disaster scenario on a Thai military base, in which participants must negotiate a border crossing, meet and vet interpreters, organise convoys, and make sure their kit and accommodation is safe, among other things.
They might need to sleep rough or deal with aggressive people at checkpoints. All the while, they must regularly file video, photos and text. “It’s a really fun week,” Filer says, wryly.
For now, however, few of the attendees are freelancers, and even fewer are local country journalists – yet they’re the ones who bear the most risk.
“Our local colleagues are the majority of the people imprisoned, assaulted and murdered,” Filer says. “But it takes an Australian journalist to be on trial for us to even have the conversation.”
In the past decade, foreign journalists have increasingly become targets. Even so, nine out of 10 reporters killed die in their own country. Most of the deaths are murders, not casualties of war.
“Local journalists are murdered because they’re rummaging around in stories people don’t want aired,” explains Robert Mahoney, from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“That’s always been the case. What’s even worse is that nine out of 10 of those murders go unpunished. When you don’t address the problem of impunity, journalists stop writing stories, because they think they’re going to get killed for it.”
Last year, the United Nations General Assembly voted to establish an annual “International Day to End Impunity” for crimes against journalists, on November 2.
Mahoney acknowledges that drug cartels, corrupt officials and authoritarian regimes are oblivious to such measures. But he says they’re worth pursuing. Some countries with many unsolved murders of journalists – such as Mexico, Brazil and India – are sensitive to international pressure.
“This is human rights work,” he says. “It’s long, it’s slow and it’s a hard slog.”
Last Thursday, protestors gathered in over 30 cities to rally in support of the Al Jazeera journalists.
The event was part of a huge campaign for their release, which has played out most publicly on Twitter, where it has attracted hundreds of thousands of hits. Thousands of people, including many prominent journalists all around the world, have posed for photos with their mouths taped shut.
In Sydney’s Martin Place, the federal secretary of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, Chris Warren, called on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to appeal directly to the Egyptian president.
Foreign minister Julie Bishop says she doesn’t believe that would help secure his release. “The advice I have received from other governments in the region is that we should not seek to humiliate the Egyptian authorities. We should seek to work as assiduously as possible behind the scenes,” she says.
“There’s a whole other issue about journalists facing significant risks in places of conflict and tension. I understand all of that, but my focus right now is to get Mr Greste home as soon as possible.”
Bishop says consular officials have met several times with the 48-year-old and his family, and also with Egyptian prosecutors. She had spoken directly with the foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, but last week the entire Egyptian cabinet resigned.
The Greste family is keenly aware of the fragility of the Egyptian state – after all, that’s why Peter was called in to report from Cairo.
His parents, Lois and Juris, live in the Brisbane suburb of Sherwood. They spoke to him on Christmas day. “He was pretty cautious about going out on the streets, even at that time,” Lois says.
Greste has covered conflicts in the Middle East and worked as a correspondent in Latin America and, for many years, Africa.
“He’s no cowboy journalist,” Juris says. “He’s got a background of dealing with really tough situations.”
In 2005, Greste’s producer Kate Peyton was shot and killed in Somalia while the pair were standing outside a hotel. He returned six years later and his report for BBC from the streets of Mogadishu won a prestigious Peabody Award.
Al Jazeera has published two letters Greste wrote from prison in January. He described his broadcasts from Cairo as “some pretty mundane reporting”.
At first, after he was arrested, he hoped the authorities would understand he was caught up in a political struggle that was not his own.
The Egyptian government believes the Qatari broadcaster – especially its Arabic channel – promotes the Muslim Brotherhood.
But as the days passed, Greste realised that, amidst the broader crackdown on dissent, his arrest was not a mistake. One part of the struggle was his: “As a journalist, I am committed to defending a fundamental freedom of the press that no one in my profession can credibly work without,” he wrote.
“How do you accurately and fairly report on Egypt’s ongoing political struggle without talking to everyone involved?”
His brother Andrew has travelled to Cairo to support him, but despite several visits to Tora prison, his family remains unsure about what will happen when their son returns to court today. The processes of the Egyptian legal system, and even the charges he faces, seem hazy.
“You try to not build up too much hope,” Lois says, “but you can’t help but build a little bit.”