From a young age, Peter Greste had an adventurous spirit and a strong sense of social justice and fairness – the absence of which the Al Jazeera English journalist is no doubt reflecting on as he languishes in jail in Cairo for crimes he did not commit.
Born in Sydney on December 1, 1965, Peter grew up at the edge of Lane Cove River National Park and, with his younger brothers, roamed the safe suburban streets and played in the nearby bush.
Aged about three, his father Juris recalls, he once swung out on a rotary clothes hoist and found himself hanging over a cliff precipice. Later, he would come home from the local primary school commenting on apparent injustices and unfair treatment.
“As parents muse about their children’s future, we sometimes wondered whether he was going to end up as a lawyer,” Juris says.
Peter joined the local cub scouts and in 1977, after the family moved to Brisbane, played an active role in the Indooroopilly Scouting ranks up to the most senior level of Rovers.
He also developed a love of all kinds of physical activities with his peers from those days, many of whom remain among his closest friends. An enthusiastic lover of the outdoors, especially flying his surf kite, he was “regrettably not much good with a hammer and nails.”
“While Peter could not be described as a thrill seeker, he has never shirked away from challenges and difficult projects,” Juris says.
School captain in Year 12, Peter was a finalist in the Lions Club Youth of the Year Awards. He was awarded a Rotary International Exchange Scholarship and spent a year studying in South Africa, living with local families.
In 1984, he embarked on his journalism studies at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, graduating some years later with excellent results and a special award for photography.
With a keen interest in media across platforms – radio, TV, print media and photography – he started his career at a local TV station in Shepparton, before moving on to jobs in Darwin and then Adelaide, with Network Ten.
Juris says during his early career, Peter read Tim Bowden’s book One Crowded Hour about Australian cameraman / journalist Neil Davis: “This seems to have crystallised Peter’s ambitions and goals to become a foreign correspondent,” Juris says.
In 1991, Peter set his sights on the BBC in London: “He basically arrived, knocked on their door and said ‘Here I am’.”
Four years later, he applied for and got a posting in Kabul, covering the emergence of the Taliban and later, the start of the post 9/11 war.
Juris says Peter’s resourcefulness shone through when he was tasked with getting some satellite broadcasting gear into Kabul from Uzbekistan, across difficult snow covered terrain. The journey, aided by donkeys and horses, took weeks.
Serving a period in Bosnia while doing freelance work for Reuters, the people Peter met and the things he experienced strengthened his commitment to his work.
After that, he was rarely off the road. He worked across the Middle East before moving to head the South American operation for the BBC. Based in Mexico City for about three years, he later moved to Santiago and Buenos Aires to cover all of South America, operating as a one man band doing his own producing and camerawork as well as radio.
Eventually resigning from the BBC to follow his Kenyan girl friend from Mombasa on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast in 2004, where he became a bold freelancer.
Former ABC foreign affairs editor Peter Cave recalls meeting Peter just before the election that ended Apartheid.
Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi ,the leader of the mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party was threatening to boycott the election and was holed up in his palace in Ulundi refusing to negotiate with the ANC, he says. His supporters had murdered a group of ANC election workers who had come to Zululand and strung their bodies up from light poles in the capital.
Over a drink one night, Peter and Cave hatched a plan to drive into Ulundi to see if Buthelezi who had cut himself off from the outside world would talk to them.
“Peter was an impecunious freelancer and I was a just slightly better funded correspondent for the ABC,” Cave says.
“We had no idea what reception we would receive and in the forefront of our minds was what had happened to the ANC Election workers. I don’t know if Peter was scared but I know that deep down I was terrified at the prospect.”
Cave hired a car, Peter “scrounged some body armour from somewhere to match mine” and the pair set off on the six-hour drive from Johannesburg to Ulundi, in which the pair became firm friends.
“To our surprise and relief Buthelezi received us politely and granted us an interview in which he foreshadowed the last minute change of heart that saw Inkatha join the election and eventually the post-Apartheid government,” Cave says.
Cave says he watched with satisfaction as Peter’s career took off as a correspondent for the BBC and Al Jazeera English across the globe.
“His calmness and integrity in the face of danger always impressed me over the years as we worked alongside each other, or when as an ABC presenter I interviewed him in places like Afghanistan, South America or the Middle East,” he says. “I feel for him every day he spends in custody in Egypt.”
Cathy Beacham, the regional manager for the Australian Volunteers for International Development Program in Africa, met Peter when he was based in Nairobi.
“When I was with CARE USA working on an education project in 2005 Peter agreed to take a wheelchair into South Sudan (upper Nile) for a young girl called Rachel Alier who was physically disabled from polio and he made a short documentary that was aired many times on the BBC.
“We had raised funds through a private donor in the US. As I recall, due to flooding and the dirt landing strip it took three days and three attempts to get the wheelchair in by plane but Peter persevered and eventually made it. He subsequently made a documentary for our CARE program on girls’ education in South Sudan.”
Ms Beacham has been tracking Peter’s situation every day since his arrest.
“I know that this is a time when some quiet diplomacy is needed and many of his friends and colleagues are doing what they can to help secure his release,” she says.
“I wouldn’t want to jeopardise his situation in anyway … Peter is a wonderful guy and an amazing and balanced journalist.”
Former ABC foreign correspondent, Mark Colvin, says he first encountered Peter when he was in Afghanistan and contributing reports and interviews to the program he hosts, ABC PM.
“Subsequently, he also reported for us from various parts of Africa; later, when he had to return to Australia for a while for family reasons, I helped arrange for him to work for us, and he was for that brief time an outstanding addition to our team,” Colvin says.
“As well as liking Peter as a person, I have the very highest respect for him as a journalist of integrity, accuracy and great courage.
“It is nothing short of ludicrous to me to suggest that he was doing anything in Cairo but report in the best traditions of honest journalism.”
Juris says Peter’s loyalty to friends and colleagues is further evident though a tragic event: he was with producer Kate Peyton when she was randomly shot outside a Mogadishu hotel and within hours, died in hospital from her wounds.
“Despite BBC’s urging to get out quickly, Peter insisted on delaying until he could fly back to London with Kate’s body,” Juris says.
The inquest that followed a few years later acknowledged that Peter’s actions were proper and appropriate. Years later, he returned to Somalia to “to complete unfinished business” – the story he and Kate had intended to do.
This story for BBC Panorama won him the Peabody Award.
On December 29, 2013, Peter, along with two other Al Jazeera English service journalists and colleagues Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmi, was arrested by Egyptian authorities and imprisoned.
That evening, Egyptian security officers arrived at their temporary office in the Marriott Hotel, arrested them and seized all their equipment.
For the first 10 days, Peter was confined to a 24 hour solitary cell, with no exercise rights, in the maximum security Tora prison, south of Cairo.
In the month that followed, he remained alone, without reading or writing material, but allowed four hours of exercise.
The three journalists are accused of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to smear the country’s reputation and broadcast news that falsely portrayed Egypt as being in a state of “civil war”. Fahmy and Mohamed are also accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood. All three deny the charges.
The case against Peter and his colleagues was presented to court on February 20. Three subsequent short court sessions have been held without any tangible evidence against them or any progress.
Peter and his colleagues have professed their complete innocence from the day of their arrest. If convicted of the charges against them, Peter could face a maximum prison sentence of seven years but his Egyptian colleagues face 15 years.
Their court appearances in recent weeks have raised and then dashed hopes as bail has been repeatedly refused and the prosecution case drags on.
Peter will next appear in court on April 11 – still caged up more than 100 days after being detained. At home, his parents maintain an anxious vigil.
“It is more for others to give testimony of Peter’s character,” Juris says.
“However, as parents we describe him as passionately dedicated to journalism, loyal, sociable, resourceful, determined, strong willed and resilient.
“He is thoughtful, helpful, caring and compassionate, tolerant and accommodating. His strong sense of social justice has taken him close to getting himself in difficult situations.”
None more difficult than this.
This article is part of the 30 Days of Press Freedom campaign which begins today and continues until World Press Freedom Day on May 3.
The joint campaign by the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA), The Walkley Foundation for Journalism and the International Federation of Journalists Asia-Pacific, calls media colleagues, friends and supporters to help raise awareness of press freedom issues in the Asia-Pacific region.