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Peter continues to remain mentally and physically strong and has been conscious of looking after himself. An Egyptian prison is not a place where you want to get crook. My brother and I have been visiting him regularly on a weekly basis since the middle of February – family visits, along with consular visits, being his only other source of contact with the outside world. He has very limited access to his legal representatives. Through this experience Peter has come to the realisation that he is powerless to fight from within. The number one priority for him has been to ensure this ordeal does not break him mentally, and to rely on those of us outside to fight the fight for him.
The challenge we face in seeking Peter’s release has been – is being – fought on a number of fronts – legally, politically and publicly.
As a family we have felt our most effective role in this has been to try and keep his case in the media to maintain public pressure for his release.
We did not want to be months into his incarceration and have the case forgotten. We are not diplomats or politicians, and have therefore left this sometimes intangible art of cross-cultural diplomacy to the leaders and diplomats of our respective governments. I would like to thank both the Australian Government and the Latvian Government, as Peter is also a Latvian citizen, for their work in this area. It has been an effort conducted privately and behind the scenes and quite often has to go unnoticed, but we are truly grateful.
I am speaking on Peter’s behalf, but I am sure he would gratefully ask for the following important messages to be passed on. Throughout his professional career, the idea of a constitutionally enshrined press freedom was an abstract, an idealised principle that he understood to be a fundamental legal cornerstone of both his trade and the wider concept of a free and open society. This only really existed in the realm of the constitutional courts and human rights conferences, and up until now he really took press freedom for granted.
After eight months in an Egyptian prison he now knows this attitude to be dangerously naïve, and that press freedom is a fragile thing, with deeply personal consequences when it gets broken.
It is also a painfully tangible thing to the families of journalists who are arrested, kidnapped and killed every year.
While in Egypt, Peter and his colleagues were not doing anything particularly controversial. They were working as any responsible journalists would in covering a complex and somewhat messy political situation, and I quote, ‘with all the accuracy and fairness that our imperfect trade demands’. They are not the only journalists who remain behind bars. There are many others who are often held in horrible conditions – out of sight – without the benefit of global pressure. That is why Peter believes it isn’t enough to simply talk about press freedom; it must be defended loudly and vigorously in courts, in the streets and in the media.
If they are eventually acquitted, it will not only be a victory for press freedom, but also for the authorities who placed them there who will have achieved some of their objectives. Simply by arresting them they are warning journalists that contact with the political force of the previous government in Egypt could put you behind bars. And this is in a country that only in January celebrated a new constitution that enshrines some of the world’s most pious commitments to free press. Peter’s experience is then only unique in showing how quickly and dramatically arrest can happen.
Peter has also learnt that as journalists they have a duty of care, and responsibility to defend their craft to the highest level of professional integrity.
Throughout the course of the trial, investigators have searched their work for the slightest error of fact, slip of judgement, or example of bias that might support the claim that they were supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
All three of them are very proud that investigators have found nothing. We have seen nothing presented in court that is remotely incriminating and importantly, this could be the difference between liberty and extended incarceration.
If this is the case in Peter’s trial, it is similarly true in the arena of public opinion. When journalism gets sloppy and loose with the facts, when the medium becomes a pulpit for partisan politics, you lose the moral high ground and cracks appear in the ramparts used to defend your rights.
So when professional ethics slip, it gives those who wish to lock up journalists an excuse to do so.
And finally, Peter and the rest of our family are eternally grateful and humbled by the support we have received worldwide. Knowing there is huge support and interest in their case has helped lift them all, and us, his family, through our darkest times.
Being directly involved in and affected by the case, I have been exposed to the life of a foreign correspondent.
I have come to understand some of the pressures, the dangers and risks taken in carrying out their day-to-day work to bring us news from around the world. The experience has certainly given me a new appreciation for the work of Peter and his colleagues and I am truly grateful for the assistance given to me by many of the journalists who have covered the story.
Seeing him locked in the defendants’ cage dressed in white during each court session has been hard, and knowing the conditions inside the prison he endures has been difficult. If I focus on those aspects it becomes overwhelming, so instead, I think about him as my big brother, and focus on his dignity and strength.
These character traits of his have been inspiring to me and something I have tried to emulate through this continuing ordeal. His behaviour also demonstrates Peter’s remarkable spirit and ability to adapt to adverse situations and conditions. He said to me during a prison visit that if he was told he would have to endure seven months in a confined cell with one hour out a day, extended periods without books or reading and writing materials, he would not have thought it humanly possible for him to cope; however, he has done so with dignity and humility, and has remained strong throughout. Obviously he has gone through some dark patches that he has had to work hard to overcome – but overcome them he has. Thankfully they are not prolonged and are not very often.
Free Speech 2014 • Symposium papers • 11 1 Opening session
Of course, the impact on our family has been immense. My brother Mike has spent over two months in Cairo this year; I have spent nearly three months; Juris and Lois, who are in their late seventies and retired, are going into their second month. Mike and I both have wives and children who have been immensely supportive and also actively involved in the case. We also have fulltime jobs but have also had wonderful support from our employers who have shown a great deal of understanding. A family member has been in Cairo supporting Peter since mid-February.
We have felt it important to do this as the visitation rules only allow immediate family members to visit, and it is an important communication link for Peter to the outside world, to his friends and family, and to legal representation.
While in Cairo we also try to get Peter various household items he requests – those which are allowed – to make Egyptian prison life a little more bearable.
I remember doing a phone interview with a journalist back in January and this particular journalist asking me what my motivation was for speaking out about Peter’s case and what my hopes were. I remember answering that I wanted people to know about Peter’s plight because I didn’t want to be six months down the track with Peter still locked up and nobody knowing what had happened. Well, unfortunately, we are now eight months into this ordeal and Peter is still there. But now the case has become widely publicised, and thankfully, there has been a great deal of international as well as local attention given to his cause.
Please visit www.freepetergreste.org where we will update and provide current information about Peter’s case, and what we are doing.
Please follow us on social media – on Twitter @petergreste – managed by Mike, and the ‘free Peter Greste’ Facebook page which has been wonderfully managed and updated by Mike’s wife Nikki and my wife Kylie.
Peter has not sought the limelight – may his story, his truth, showcase his ability to let free speech shine.
2 Accommodating Rights (Session 1)
2.1 Chris Bergiv Director of Policy, Institute of Public Affairs Topic: Free speech in a liberal democracy Australia is a liberal democracy and liberal democracies are founded on freedom of speech.
This was the intuition behind the High Court’s discovery in the early 1990s of our implied right to political communication.28 That right, in my view, is deeply inadequate.
But for our purposes today, I’ll point out that the right to political communication isn’t really a ‘right’, per se, at least not in the way that we are used to speaking about human rights: as universal, based on fundamental moral principles, and innate to our personhood.
It’s a more of a pragmatic legal workaround to a basic contradiction in Westminster government.
The Parliament gets its legitimacy from the fact that it is freely chosen by the conscience and debate of free citizens. But the Parliament is able to write laws that determine the rules under which that debate may be conducted and what consciences may be publicly expressed.
Then again, if the right to political communication is all we are offered, I’ll take it.
Today I want to do two things. First, I want to briefly lay some foundations for the right to freedom of speech. These foundations are philosophical. You might even say ideological.
The last three years of free speech debate, beginning with the Andrew Bolt case, has been an ideological one, as it should be.
Pretending that free speech is just a matter for lawyers to negotiate competing rights claims in court – or, worse, for human rights technocrats to arbitrate between different international human rights ‘instruments’ – is to pay lip service to human rights.
Human rights are fundamentally political claims.
Second, I’ll connect these principles to a few examples of what I consider to be the more interesting and concerning limitations on free speech today.
The great American legal academic Lee C. Bollinger once wrote that ‘free speech is not just a practical tool for making systemic repairs, but an affirmation of what we value as a people’.
He went on, ‘the reason we shelter speech is as important as the speech we shelter’.29 The popular free speech debate is mediated through a thicket of metaphors and analogies. One of the most common is that one cannot falsely shout fire in a crowded theatre.
It is astonishing anybody still uses this metaphor: it was conceived as a justification for the suppression of socialist anti-war dissent during the First World War. The ‘crowded theatre’ was the American war effort. To falsely shout fire was to contentiously object to that war.
If we insist on the use of metaphors to determine our ideas of free speech, then it is hard not to see the stubborn persistence of the crowded theatre as itself a metaphor for the way free speech limitations are almost always defences of the power of the state.
Freedom of speech is, ultimately, the outward manifestation of the deeper freedom of individual conscience, of thought.
It is our thoughts – our preferences, our ideas, our faiths, our internal differentiation from the collective – that make us individuals, that make us human. A recognition of that forms the basis of pluralistic liberal democracy.
iv Chris Berg’s latest book is In Defence of Freedom of Speech: from Ancient Greece to Andrew Bolt. He is a regular columnist with ABC’s The Drum. A monograph, The Growth of Australia’s Regulatory State, was published in 2008. He is also the editor of 100 Great Books of Liberty (with John Roskam) published in 2010 and The National Curriculum: a Critique in 2011.
Free Speech 2014 • Symposium papers • 13 2 Accommodating Rights (Session 1)
Free speech is not a tool to make the state function better, as the High Court’s reasoning suggests it is. Rather it is fundamental to our individual moral autonomy.30
I understand that’s a bit wishy-washy. But talking about principles seems to be more productive than the opposite:
the philosophically empty busy-work that constitutes most debate about human rights in Australia today – that is, measuring Australian law against international treaties and identifying where the two differ.
And on these principles Australia has a massive freedom of speech problem.
Our defamation laws are heavy-handed and have a demonstrable chilling effect on speech. Our sedition laws are excessive. Our classification scheme is effectively a censorship scheme.
Our communications regulator believes that its job is to adjudicate whether speech on radio and television is sufficiently balanced.
We were told that the federal government abandoned the internet filter a few years ago, but section 313 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth) operates exactly as opponents of the internet filter feared Labor’s policy would.
And last week we learned that a super-injunction can prevent us discussing the absolutely scandalous foreign activities of the most important economic institution in the country – a super-injunction that we are told is necessary to protect national security. Of course it is.
The bottom line from that super-injunction is this: I am unable to discuss the unlawful activities of a government department at a national conference on free speech.
Let me briefly mention a few policy proposals on the cards that have substantial free speech implications.
First is the government’s proposed Children’s e-Safety Commissioner. They will have the power to delete material from social media sites – the phrase is ‘rapidly takedown harmful material’. Bullying is a serious issue. But the proposal will offer no material benefit to children who are being bullied. It is a strong example of how moral panics ultimately manifest in attacks on speech.