Australian journalists and representatives from human rights organisations gathered at the Egyptian Consulate in Sydney today to support Amnesty International in demanding the immediate release of Peter Greste and his Al Jazeera English colleagues.
PHUKET: Journalism Education Association Australia president Matthew Ricketson has made a statement in support of jailed journalist Peter Greste and Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian, who are facing jail on Phuket:
TWO AUSTRALIAN journalists working overseas are being held in detention or face imprisonment simply for doing their job of reporting on the activities of those in positions of power and authority. They are Peter Greste of al Jazeera English and Alan Morison, editor of a small website in Thailand, phuketwan.com.
Freedom of the news media is almost universally understood to be a core value in democratic societies or in those that aspire to be democratic. In some countries, such as Egypt and Thailand, we are seeing threats to media freedom that are urgent and visceral. In other countries such as Australia we all too often take for granted the ability of journalists to report critically on those in positions of power and authority; threats to media freedom here rarely involve arbitrary detention.
Peter Greste is a graduate of the Queensland University of Technology's journalism program, in 1986, and has enjoyed a lengthy career as a journalist working for reputable news organisations such as the BBC and CNN. Alan Morison began in journalism two decades earlier, in 1966, when most did a cadetship after school (as he did, at the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd). He went on to hold senior editorial positions at The Age and in recent years at phuketwan.com, which provides news, views and reviews about life and tourism on the island of Phuket.
Greste, along with an Egyptian and a Canadian-Egyptian colleague, was arrested on 29 December and is being held in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison in Cairo. He has been charged with spreading false news to aid the Muslim Brotherhood which has been recently outlawed in Egypt by the military-backed government.
In a letter sent from his prison cell, and broadcast on ABC television's Media Watch on 3 February, Greste steadfastly maintains his innocence: ''We had been doing as any responsible, professional journalist would - recording and trying to make sense of the unfolding events with all the accuracy, fairness and balance that our imperfect trade demands''.
The political situation in Egypt is complicated and highly contested, as is the current government's relationship with the al Jazeera network, as Fairfax Media's Middle East correspondent, Ruth Pollard, outlined in two pieces published on 1 February in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age: ''The media have always had a difficult relationship with the powerful in Egypt. Repression was rife during [former] president Hosni Mubarak's three-decade rule and the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government of [President] Mohamed Mursi sought to quash criticism of his short-lived, dysfunctional administration. But the targeting of journalists from al-Jazeera English over the network's alleged pro-Brotherhood stance - a charge denied by al-Jazeera executives - has spilt over to encompass all foreign media''.
The constantly threatening environment in Egypt makes even straightforward reporting tasks so dangerous, according to Pollard, that she and other colleagues are reluctant to go out into the streets at all. Already, many have been beaten or detained. Risk-taking is in the DNA of most foreign correspondents; when they decide they cannot do their work, how will citizens around the world, let alone in Egypt, learn what is happening? The undeniable benefits to the free flow of information afforded by digital technologies and social media still need what Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel term the discipline of verification in their book The Elements of Journalism; that is, there remains a need to strip away misinformation from information which is all the more important - and more difficult - when the stakes are at their highest, as they are in Egypt.
Where the threat to Greste and his colleagues is immediate, with no sign of bail being granted pending trial, Alan Morison and his main associate, Thai journalist, Chutima Sidasathian, have been issued with lawsuits that allege criminal defamation, and, strangely, breach of Thailand's Computer Crimes Act, that if successful could see them jailed for up to seven years.
For several years, Morison and his colleague have been reporting about a largely unknown scandal concerning the Rohingya Muslim people who have been fleeing persecution in Myanmar. As boat people they have been abused while trying to escape to Malaysia. Often they have become prey to traffickers and slave-dealers according to Kevin Childs, a former Age colleague of Morison, who has begun a petition via Change.org protesting against the lawsuit. Where the Royal Thai Navy comes in to the picture is that it has sometimes helped the boat people with food, water and fuel - as long as they don't come to Thailand.
Childs writes that Morison and Sidasathian were the first to call global public attention to the Rohingya boat people's problems. On 16 December a Royal Thai Navy officer, acting on behalf of the Navy, issued the lawsuits against them. The ostensible reason is that one article published on their website quoted a paragraph from a Reuters report about the Navy's role in the Rohingya boat people issue. Reuters stands by its report, but it has not been sued even while Morison and Sidasathian have. Morison told me by email that all they have done is: ''Merely republished word for word a contentious paragraph among excerpts from the Reuters news agency. That deed has left us facing charges under criminal defamation and the Computer Crimes Act amounting to a maximum penalty of seven years in jail, which seems extreme and unreasonable''.
Nevertheless, the two journalists are prepared to go to jail rather than surrender the principle of freedom of the media.
Many individual citizens as well as several organisations committed to freedom of speech or representing journalists have already expressed their concern and outrage about the treatment of these two Australian journalists. The Journalism Education Association of Australia, which represents those preparing the next generation of young people entering the news media and related fields, has as one of its core beliefs promoting ''freedom of expression and communication,'' and adds its voice to this issue. The association's executive is alarmed by these recent, serious threats to freedom of expression, and is committed to speaking out in support of journalists whose sole crime appears to be doing the job of journalism.
Matthew Ricketson is JEAA president and Professor of Journalism at the University of Canberra