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'I Want to Keep Talking About it': VICE News Interviews Peter Greste About His Time In Egyptian Jail

Al Jazeera journalist jailed for more than 400 days for reporting on Egyptian protests in 2013 says he'll continue fighting for press freedom every chance he gets.

by Sally Hayden
Feb 19 2015, 11:55pm

Photo by Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

On December 29, 2013, Australian-born Al Jazeera reporter Peter Greste and the network's Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian national, were arrested in a Cairo Marriott hotel room. One of the men who came to detain them filmed the confrontation; the video was later broadcast on Egyptian television, inexplicably alongside music from the Thor movie soundtrack.

A third Al Jazeera journalist, local producer Baher Mohamed, was apprehended at his home. Initially unaware of what they were charged with, the three journalists were dubbed the "Marriott Cell," by authorities, and accused of spreading "false news" while covering protests following the ousting of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, and with "aiding a terrorist organization" — a reference to Morsi's banned Muslim Brotherhood party.

A campaign, begun shortly after the journalists' arrests, united rival news organizations in their condemnation of Egypt's crackdown on free speech and press. Hundreds of journalists posted pictures online — some with their mouths covered with tape and holding #FreeAJStaff signs — in solidarity with the accused. The slogan for the campaign: "Journalism is not terrorism."

Al Jazeera journalists jailed for seven years after bizarre Egyptian trial. Read more here.

Yet the outcry did nothing to halt the trio's trial. The international media watched in horror as Greste, Mohamed, and Fahmy, dressed in white prison uniforms, sat in cages throughout the proceedings. Bizarre evidence was presented in the trial, including a video of trotting donkeys and horses, a recording of the Gotye song "Somebody That I Used to Know," and bits of footage taken from the BBC and Voice of America. Observers also noted that the prosecutors seemed unaware of the difference between Al Jazeera English and the Arabic versions of the station.

The journalists were tried alongside four students and activists whom they had never met before.

In June, 2014, Greste and Fahmy were each handed seven-year sentences, while Mohamed was given 10 years. A number of other Al Jazeera journalists and a Dutch reporter, who has never worked for the network, were convicted in absentia.

Speaking after the verdict, Al Jazeera English Managing Director Al Anstey said that the group were only, "'Guilty' of covering stories with great skill and integrity. 'Guilty' of defending people's right to know what is going on in their world."

Egypt's current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who was defense minister in the government that was formed after Morsi's ouster, but later quit the post to run for the presidency and ultimately win the election last summer, later indicated that the imprisonment of the Al Jazeera journalists was a legacy headache he'd rather not deal with.

"Firstly, if I had been in office at the time, I would have wanted no further problems and would have asked them to leave the country," el-Sisi told German weekly Der Spiegel. "Secondly: Our judiciary is independent. It is important that the Western world does not see itself as the only one with an independent judiciary."

In January, Egypt's Court of Cassation ordered a retrial for the journalists after reviewing and determining a number of issues with the original hearing, including a lack of evidence.

On February 1, Greste was released and deported from Egypt under a presidential decree, without any warning. Twelve days later, on February 13, Fahmy and Mohamed were released on bail, though both remain in the country pending a retrial, which is expected to begin Monday. Fahmy renounced his Egyptian citizenship this month in a bid to secure deportation to Canada. All three men have spent more than 400 days each in prison.

VICE News met Peter Greste in the Frontline Club in London Thursday. He drank an orange juice, leaning one arm casually on the side of a leather couch. His phone constantly buzzed with updates. Every new arrival to the room visibly reacted when they saw him; from strangers who glanced a moment too long to friends offering hugs and beaming smiles. The evening before, at the Royal Television Society awards ceremony, Greste had received a standing ovation as he accepted a prize on behalf of himself and his two "brothers" in Egypt for their contribution to television journalism.

VICE News: It must be strange to be on the other side of the interviews.
Peter Greste: It is weird. Every journalist gets this — you spend your whole life trying not to be the news.

So how are you?
Tired but kind of overwhelmed by it. It's just been so full on. The amount of interest in our story has been unbelievable and overwhelming, and I'm not sure I completely understand it, but sometimes you just gotta roll with this stuff.

You probably weren't completely aware of all the attention, were you?
Not really, no. We had some idea. We were getting information about it, we knew that stuff was happening but I never really fully understood just how big it was.

About a year ago, I went to a protest at the Egyptian embassy, and we all found it very strange because about half the journalists were on the outside filming it and the other half were protesting.
Yeah exactly, it's kind of like doing a mass selfie.

The trial is obviously ongoing and the charges against you haven't been dropped, they're still there. You probably still have loads of questions yourself. What would they be?
We don't really understand how this happened. We've always insisted on our innocence. We've always insisted that the charges had no basis in reality. We don't know how [the Egyptian authorities] came to those conclusions. The evidence they presented in court during the first trial certainly doesn't seem to point to that, and the Court of Cassation agreed with us. I don't want to get too drawn into the case. It's an ongoing trial so I've got to be very careful, there's a limit to what I can say, but I just don't fully understand how we got to where we are. That's a big question and I don't have the answer.

And you don't understand why the three of you specifically were targeted?
No I don't. Again, there were specific charges against us. Where those charges came from… Again we're straying into areas that are difficult for me to comment on, but clearly the judge who convicted us had a reason for doing so. We've always disagreed with it. The Court of Cassation seems to think there wasn't sufficient evidence, we just need to wait and let the retrial take its course.

To move on to prison conditions, what were they like?
I can't give you too much detail, but in very broad terms, we were never physically threatened. I never felt physically in danger. My own view is that in any event, regardless of prison conditions, the biggest threat is the threat to your own psychological health, or mental health, and that's always the greatest risk, and prisons under any circumstances are pretty tough. We always had the basic needs. We had food — not always great food but we had food. We had water. We had toilets — not always great toilets but again, basic conditions. Our relationship with the authorities was, as you'd expect, not great but again, it wasn't abusive.

There have been reports of widespread abuse and even torture in Egyptian prisons.
Again, I can't comment.

I read that you, Fahmy and Mohamed were holding a daily news show while in prison, called the "Al Jazeera Live Show."
Yes, it was a way of communicating with the other prisoners around the cell and exchanging news and ideas and so on. It became a really important part of the day.

And what was your role in it?
Pretty much as — well not as a bystander. I was involved in it, but my Arabic isn't great and most of the conversations were taking place in Arabic. But it was just great to be involved and to be able to communicate. To get a sense of what everyone else felt. And it became a really important part of the routine for everybody because it helped them do the thing that makes us human — and that's to communicate with other humans.

Tears of happiness as jailed Al Jazeera journalists are finally released. Read more here.

What time did you do it?
It was in the evening after lockdown… Prison is the kind of experience where you learn the value of the clichés. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and there are people who went through prison, who I saw in prison, who were broken by the experience. I was determined not to let that happen. 

We needed to take control of the things we could control, and that's our own physical fitness and mental fitness and spiritual health, and I made sure we exercised regularly. We had a corridor about 30 meters (98 feet) long and we ran up and down that every day, put in about 8-10 kilometers a day (5-6 miles), sometimes just to try and keep physically fit, to keep up a routine. I was able to do some study, started a master's, and that was also part of it. I spent quite a bit of time meditating just to try to keep my head in a stable, sane place. Throughout all of this, one of the keys for us was basically to apply meaning to it — to make it something bigger than just about us. It wasn't just about us, it was about larger issues; press freedom, and the whole campaign fed back into that.

And not just about Egypt, either.
No, it wasn't just about Egypt. Our incarceration rankled with all the horrific murders of Steven Sotloff and James Foley in Syria, and Kenji Goto, and obviously the Charlie Hebdo attack and the more recent attack last weekend in Denmark, and an ongoing debate in a whole bunch of countries all over the world.... There's been draconian legislation introduced in a number of countries, including Australia, which limits what the press can do, and supposedly for reasons of national security. I think that the fact that our case ran parallel to that meant that people saw the significance of that state in our story. We've come to symbolize that, we've come to stand for that. From that respect, I'm kind of proud of the way that worked, but also it helped us at a personal level because it meant that we weren't fighting this alone, we were fighting on behalf of a much bigger issue.

And so what will you do next then to keep that momentum going?
Still trying to figure it out. I'm not really sure. There's an awful lot that can be done from here. We've got a platform, we've been identified, that's a very strong thing and I want to keep talking about it. I don't want to let it go. What form that takes, I don't know, I mean I've already been asked to speak at conferences and meetings, and there's a big European Union press freedom conference in Riga, Latvia in May and I've been asked to go to that, so every opportunity I get, I'd like to keep talking.

You obviously need to balance that work with your own mental health as well.
Yeah exactly. Your own sanity, precisely. And also I don't want to give up the journalism. I really don't. That's a part of who I am. It would be weird to talk about free speech when I'm not doing journalism.

There were comments from people saying that there wouldn't be as much attention on your case if it had just involved domestic journalists, rather than a Western one. I was wondering what you think of that?
I'm conscious of that. All I'd say is that people will instinctively tend to identify with others that they feel familiar with. It's a classic problem, you tend to stick with your own, but I know that means that sometimes people are left out and that would be wrong. I understand it. I think it's just natural that that happens, but what I would hope is that people understand my situation and recognize that there is no difference between what happened to me and what's happened to so many other journalists all over the world, and that they're as deserving of attention as I am. But if our case raises that profile and makes people more aware generally about press freedom, then I think that's a good thing.

You shared a cell with Ibrahim Halawa [an Irish citizen arrested for allegedly inciting violence during protests in Egypt in August 2013], and there's been a huge amount of interest in his case in Ireland. What do you think his prospects are?
I can't comment on his prospects, I really can't. He's in the middle of an ongoing trial, I'm in the middle of an ongoing trial, but he's a strong kid. He's very smart, passionate. He's a big character. He's one of these larger-than-life characters. I've got a tremendous amount of respect for him. He's had a rough time. It's been a long period he's been in prison, almost 18 months. But I'm pretty sure — and hopeful — that he's got what it takes to see this through, whatever the outcome.

You began studying for a master's degree in international relations while in prison. I was interested in how you found studying that topic, when you were practically in the middle of it.
In some ways it made it a whole lot easier because there was an awful lot of it that I could directly relate to. I didn't expect it to be quite so directly applicable and connected to what we were going through, but it was great to see that it was, and it made it a lot more real. It's not me sitting in a lecture theatre back in Australia trying to relate to international relations and be engaged with it. So much of it was directly connected to all of my work. My course — eight of the 10 topics in one particular subject, were things that I had actually been involved in — whether it was ethnic violence or migration, it was all part of the stuff that I'd been doing as part of my daily work. It was part of my bread and butter.

Did you refer to your situation in your essays?
Not really, I tried to keep that separate.

News organizations in general are now asking what they should be doing if something similar happens to their staff. Do you have any suggestions?
Yes, lots of pastoral care for families. Good communication, active involvement. I mean every media organization is going to be confronted by this kind of thing. They need to be aware of it, and they've got to keep people involved and engaged — families as much as anything else.

Your family seemed so fantastic throughout.
They were extraordinary.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd