Friday, 7 February 2014

"I am Peter Greste"

I appreciate that it's not always easy to love journalists, but that should not detract from an eternal truth: it is always essential to value journalism.

Especially in places where governments want to restict free access to information. Places like Egypt, for example, where the generals are cracking down hard on journalists and accusing some of them of being terrorists. Among the dozens who have been rounded up are 20 from the al-Jazeera TV network, including their award-winning and much-respected correspondent Peter Greste, a former colleague of mine at the BBC.

He has managed, with great courage, to smuggle two letters out of prison since he was detained more than a month ago, and I would urge you to read them -- they are here and here. Just as a taste, here's an extract from the second letter, in which he describes the "new normal" of an Egypt ruled, once again, by an unelected military junta.

"The state here seems to see itself in an existential struggle that pits the forces of good, open, free society against the Islamist 'terrorists' still struggling to seize control. In that environment, 'normal' has shifted so far from the more widely accepted 'middle' that our work suddenly appeared to be threatening. We were not alone in our reporting, but our arrest has served as a chilling warning to others of where the middle is here."

This, alas, is where the heady days of the Arab Spring three years ago have led. And yet, disgracefully, the considered view from Western governments seems to amount to not much more than "Oh dear, but at least they're better than the other lot …" By which they mean, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood, of whom they were deeply suspicious. (Just to be clear, I'm not a huge fan of the Brotherhood either -- but that's not the same as backing their violent overthrow.)

Tony Blair, former prime minister, and now a would-be global statesman, went out of his way to offer his support to the generals when he was in Cairo a few days ago -- they overthrew the elected government, he said, "at the will of the people … to take the country to the next stage of its development, which should be democratic". Which frankly leaves me lost for words …

Journalists around the world have mounted a campaign to press for the release of their colleagues imprisoned in Egypt -- if you're on Facebook, you might like to add your support to the Free Peter Greste page. (On Twitter, use #freeAJStaff.) Because this is something that should concern not just journalists, and not just those who care about Egypt and the future shape of the Middle East.

We live in an era when it is easier than ever before for more people to have more access to more information more quickly. Thanks to the internet, mobile phones and social network sites, information can flow across the globe at unprecedented speed and with unprecedented freedom. It empowers popular movements and terrifies governments.

So the crackdown on journalists in Egypt is part of a much bigger picture. Whether it's the Turkish government introducing tough new internet access controls in the midst of a major corruption scandal, or the kidnapping and murder of journalists in Syria, or UK intelligence agents insisting that The Guardian smashes up its computers to destroy leaked security material from Edward Snowden -- governments are desperate to control the flow of information.

There's nothing new about this, of course. In the 1990s, it was illegal in Britain to broadcast even the voice of any member of the Republican Sinn Fein movement. The ban was a total farce, and succeeded only in creating regular work for Irish actors who were hired to impersonate Sinn Fein leaders like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

A free press is an essential part of a functioning democracy. Locking up journalists for trying to do their job is an affront to anyone who cares about the world we live in and believes that we have a right to be properly informed about what's going on in some its darkest corners. (There'll be other opportunities to reflect on phone-hacking and other journalistic misdeeds -- because even I wouldn't dream of trying to persuade you that all journalists, everywhere, are saints.)

In Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film Spartacus, when captured Roman slaves are asked to identify which of them is the rebel leader Spartacus, each of them leaps to his feet and replies: "I am Spartacus."

So in that same spirit, and with no disrespect to the many other imprisoned journalists in Egypt and elsewhere: I am Peter Greste.


Unknown said...

You are so right, Robin. What has happened in Egypt is a tragedy. Why do so many politicians, even when elected to power in believably fair elections, then behave in a 'winner takes all' manner, as if the losers, all those people who didn't vote for the winner, somehow lose their citizenship, their right to be represented & have their voice heard? It paves the way for dictators.

And why are we in the West so politically and historically stupid? Can't we see that, when a country is ruled by a dictator, there is usually a reason for it? It may not be a good reason; we may wish the country was better governed, its people less downtrodden. But 'taking out the bad guy' is not a plausible foreign policy.

We declare ourselves shocked when the pressure-cooker whose lid we've just removed boils over. Yet that is what we do, again and again, from Mossadeq to Assad, either through proxies or, increasingly, ourselves, judging who the bad guys are from our own narrow perspective. My own view is, this is 'global politics', the concomitant of the global economy invented by the inequality engine we (almost never) call capitalism.

George Mkandawire said...

Its a pity that courts also tend to get involved in politics. I wonder to how al sisi is treating the issue despite him being someone who promised to respect the rule of law, human rights and promote good governance. Am a young upcoming broadcast journalist and what happened to Peter Gretse and friends isn't only threat to media freedom in Egypt rather whole of africa and entire world. Human rights bodies are saying the sentencing "defies logic sense and any semblance of justice" which i quite agree, journalism i snot a crime .

Jim KABLE said...

You are quite right Robin - all the things you say in your cover letter.