Peter Greste has written a compelling book called The Firs t Casualty, a reflection from his time in an Egyptian prison and global war on journalism.
Peter Greste has written a compelling book called The Firs t Casualty, a reflection from his time in an Egyptian prison and global war on journalism. TIM BAUER

Peter Greste on his biggest fear while in an Egyptian jail

It was in solitary confinement that Peter Greste realised his shock imprisonment in Egypt's Tora Prison in December 2013 was an attack on press freedom. At the time of his arrest, Greste had only been in Cairo for two weeks and admitted to doing some "pretty mundane, dull journalism".

The foreign correspondent had spent decades reporting from some of the world's most dangerous countries before making a headline of himself, or as he describes it, "a victim of the new global war on journalism".

"I'd only been there for a couple of weeks. I didn't know this story at all. I didn't know the politics that well, so it was pretty straightforward journalism with nothing particularly radical about it," Greste tells Weekend on the fourth anniversary of his arrest.

On short-term assignment, Greste and his colleagues from broadcaster Al Jazeera's English service expected no more than the usual degree of risk associated with covering a local political crisis.

"Yet we were accused of terrorism. Of being members of a terrorist organisation, of aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation, of financing a terrorist organisation, of broadcasting false news to undermine national security."

Greste's thought-provoking new book, The First Casualty, is part memoir, part history.

Based on letters he smuggled out of prison, his own recollections and notes, Greste reflects on the stark conditions he endured - from solitary confinement to shared cells in cramped and dirty conditions with a mix of cellmates ranging from street thugs to his co-accused and even former government ministers - and outlines the techniques that kept him mentally, physically and emotionally together while dealing with fear, anxiety and frustration:

"I am nervous as I write this. I am in my cold prison cell after my first official exercise session - four glorious hours in the grass yard behind our block - and I don't want that right to be snatched away. I've been locked in my cell 24 hours a day for the past 10 days, allowed out only for visits to the prosecutor for questioning, so the chance for a walk in the weak winter sunshine is precious.

"So too are the books on history, Arabic and fiction that my neighbours have passed to me, and the pad and pen I now write with.

"I want to cling to these tiny joys and avoid anything that might move the prison authorities to punitively withdraw them.

But after two weeks in prison it is now clear that this is a dangerous decision. It validates an attack not just on me and my two colleagues but on freedom of speech across Egypt."

Greste recalls the psychological challenges of solitary confinement and discovering his greatest danger was his own mind.

"The whole point of prison was to mess with your head," he says.

He imposed structure and order to the day to avoid falling into a mental pit.

"You've got to focus on filling that empty void of time."

The Australian Embassy issued him an exercise program which was designed by the Canadian Airforce for its airmen to keep fit after World War II.

"They were basic exercises designed to do in 15 minutes a day and I managed to stretch it out for an hour," Greste says.

"You've got to create stuff. I was playing memory games.

"The food sometimes came wrapped in aluminium foil. I discovered that if you smeared soap on the back of the aluminium it stuck quite well to the walls. I made this big foil mural.

But Greste also realised he had to be spiritually strong too.

"I spent a lot of time meditating, trying to keep calm. I did a meditation course quite a few years ago after a relationship breakdown. It wasn't until I was in prison that I discovered it was an incredibly powerful way of keeping watch over your own mind," he says.

Greste spent more than two decades reporting from some of the world's volatile hotspots including Afghanistan (before and after 9/11), Kenya, Serbia, Somalia and South America before his arrest. Alongside the story of his journey through the Egyptian judicial system the book includes gripping accounts of key moments in the War on Terror from 9/11 to Charlie Hebdo.

Reflecting on events in recent history, Greste says the rise in assaults on media freedom has led to the horrific murders of, among others, his friends and colleagues, including Kate Peyton, Maria Grazia Cutuli, Daniel Pearl, James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

His insights and experiences make a compelling case for the importance of maintaining freedom of speech and freedom of the press as a fundamental bedrock of a functioning democracy.

"In prison it struck me that we had moved from a war over physical, tangible things like politics, ethnicity, land to a war over ideas, of isms," he says.

"Before 9/11, we were able to work with the Taliban, we were able to cross the frontlines all the time. Back then it was a war about domestic politics and domestic control of turf and power in Afghanistan.

"As journalists, it was dangerous, but we weren't specific targets. We were seen as legitimate observers, often inconvenient observers, by both sides but we had a role to play. The Taliban were willing to accept us as legitimate players. They didn't necessarily like our politics or our ideologies but they weren't killing us for it.


Peter Greste, tweeted this image declaring he was
Peter Greste, tweeted this image declaring he was "Free in Cypress" on February 2, 2015. Michael Grest

"If you fast forward to 9/11, all of a sudden journalists were being targeted."

Greste says he is deeply concerned about the state of news in a world with US President Donald Trump in it. Trump's phony war on "fake news'' is equally a threat, as too are Australia's meta data laws.

"Trump is as much a symptom as he is a problem. But it didn't start with Trump," he says.

While former US president Barack Obama, and former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, called on Egypt to release Greste and his colleagues, Greste says Obama was one of the worst offenders in his efforts to silence journalists.

"Obama used the Espionage Act more than twice as often as all his predecessors combined. He used it to target journalists or their sources who were leaking, generally speaking, politically embarrassing information. Only on a few occasions could you reasonably argue it was over genuine issues of national security," Greste says.

"What Trump has done has taken those ideas and weaponised them. I think in this post-truth world where Trump, through social media, has been able to speak directly to his constituents, baldly contradicting the facts and getting away with it, means we are in a world where journalism is under attack not just from governments who are trying to silence the press using national securities as an excuse, but also from the digital revolution."

Greste believes trust in mainstream media has become eroded because of the way information online has the appearance of being equal.

Within hours of the Las Vegas shooting taking place last month, conspiracy theorists flooded online platforms with accusations that it was a hoax or a set-up.

"Others were saying the accused was a recent convert to Islam and that the mainstream media was hiding that fact," says Greste.

"Those stories received enormous traction because Google and Facebook give them the same kind of prominence as mainstream news sources, the kind of sources that spend enormous amounts of energy and effort on confirming facts and information."

Now more than ever, he believes there is a desperate need for the truth in the age of terrorism.

"You can't have a strong democracy without a strong media," the reporter says.

"One of the reasons we are one of the safest, most peaceful, most prosperous, most stable countries on the planet is because we have a robust democracy and robust media.

"I fully understand what terrorism does. I've lost my producers to terrorism, I've lost friends to terrorism and I'm not diminishing our need to protect ourselves.

"But what we are doing in the war on terror, in attempt to make us safe and protect our system, is chipping away at the foundations of our democracy."

The Al Jazeera trio's trial, retrial, and final sentencing generated global headlines. Footage of them caged in the courtroom dominated newspapers, TV bulletins and social media, sparking an almost unprecedented show of solidarity from the world's media and a powerful freedom of the press campaign, #FreeAJStaff.

On his 400th day of incarceration Peter Greste was freed. Eight months later his colleagues were also released.

"I was forced into a situation not of my choosing, but also forced to be pushed. I discovered that I was a lot stronger than I gave myself credit for.

"You can't come through something like that without it having an impact on you and your outlook on life. I'm determined to keep working as a reporter because I feel as though the Egyptians tried to shut us up... I'm determined not to be shut up."


The First Casualty by Peter Greste, published by Viking, RRP $35.
The First Casualty by Peter Greste, published by Viking, RRP $35.

The First Casualty by Peter Greste (Viking, $35) is available now.