The hard cell

Bruce Cheesman was imprisoned in Iraq in 1991, but he sees an even more dangerous world for journalists today.

The chilling letters written by veteran Australian correspondent Peter Greste and smuggled out of Cairo’s Tora Prison made me reflect on how conditions for foreign reporters have deteriorated since I made my breathless run through Baghdad in the opening salvoes of the First Gulf War in 1991.

My mission to find a satellite phone and report the first bombs falling on the city was ultimately a disaster: I was captured, tortured and beaten. I spent three weeks in captivity before being allowed to leave Iraq.

Greste’s joy at catching a few rays of winter sunshine cast me back more than two decades to my experience in a tiny cell in Abu Ghraib prison, where I could see bombers attacking Baghdad from a window high in the corner.

Greste’s letters focus the spotlight on the challenges facing foreign correspondents, and which threaten to further reduce foreign coverage by the media.

Journalists face dangers never even considered when I filed my first despatches as a foreign correspondent in the 1980s. Changes in the dynamics of international conflicts caused partly by the break-up of the former Yugoslavia into sovereign states, the war on terror and the Arab Spring threaten to make the role of the foreign correspondent untenable.

Greste and his Al Jazeera English colleagues, Mohamed Adel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, face charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, a “terrorist organisation” that had been in government in Egypt for 12 months until a military coup last July. They are among 20 people indicted in the case.

Their arrest and imprisonment provides yet another excuse website for financially strained media groups not to reopen foreign news bureaus.

But this absence of major news organisations has left a gap. Now graduates fresh out of journalism school, eager to get a foothold in the profession, are going to the front line. It’s an unwelcome trend. A raw correspondent in a war zone is a recipe for disaster.

The inherent risks for reporters have ratcheted up to levels far higher than in World War II and Vietnam. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists says that 1045 journalists have been killed since 1992. In 2013, more than 100 reporters were killed.

The International Federation of Journalists includes journalists’ support staff in its death count. Over the past 12 years, more than 1100 journalists and media staff have been killed in the line of duty. In the 2003 Iraq War, more journalists died than Allied military personnel.

Who would have predicted that journalists and media organisations would be specifically targeted and killed to create a climate of fear?

A particularly insidious trend is the way regimes such as Syria have targeted journalists to discourage media organisations from covering the civil war. Marie Colvin, a fearless correspondent I first met in Baghdad, was killed in Homs in 2012 when the military deliberately shelled a makeshift press centre.

I went into Baghdad with the supposed surety of international protocols protecting journalists. The rights of journalists to be awarded prisoner of war status if they fall into enemy hands, and to have their professional independence respected, are enshrined in the Third Geneva Convention and resolution 1738 of the United Nations Security Council.

The trial of the “Marriott terrorist cell” (Al Jazeera English had worked from Cairo’s Marriott hotel) shows that the written and unwritten laws that journalists have operated under for decades are now worthless.

Greste is usually based in Kenya and was only in Egypt for three weeks to replace Al Jazeera colleagues on holiday. But he’s been caught in a pernicious feud between the Qatar TV network and the Egyptian military. Angered by Qatar’s financial support of the former Muslim Brotherhood government, the Egyptian military is bent on the destruction of Al Jazeera. While most of the foreign media moved on following the 18-day revolution that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Al Jazeera stayed with the story of Egypt’s fledgling democracy.

In Australia, there is concern among journalists, academics, union officials and the opposition that Canberra has done little to secure the release of Greste.

While the White House, the United Nations Human Rights Commission and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office have made vociferous calls for the release of the Al Jazeera correspondents, Australia has largely been silent. This is despite Prime Minister Tony Abbott being a former journalist and Australia being on the UN Security Council.

Australia took a much more proactive stand in securing the release of Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor from Libya and having the charges dropped against freelance journalist Austin Mackell in Egypt. Abbott also took a proactive stance in securing the release of two Australians jailed in Abu Dhabi.

Reporters have been told that Abbott won’t comment on overseas court cases involving Australians. But in February he did say that a free press was in the interests of all countries, and that, “Obviously a free press is not compatible with harassing journalists going about their ordinary businesses.”

Meanwhile my 92-year-old mother, Iris, who still follows international events by reading the paper every morning, has written to Peter Greste’s family to show her sympathy with their plight and had a prayer said for Peter’s release at her North Beach (WA) church.

She has been forced to relive the torment of not knowing what had happened to me for almost four days. Aside from a surreal conversation on a satellite phone, monitored by the Iraqis, she didn’t know I was safe until after I left Iraq. She tells her friends that she will never win the lottery as she used up all her luck when I was released.

Bruce Cheesman is a former correspondent for The Australian Financial Review in Seoul, Taipei, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur

Image: Australian journalist Peter Greste of Al Jazeera looks on as he stands inside the defendant’s cage during his trial for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. PHOTO: AFP/KHALED DESOUKI

This article was first published in May 2014.