United we stand: Peter Greste pays tribute to journalists in Royal Television Society award speech

Peter Greste and his al-Jazeera colleagues were jailed by Egyptian authorities for 400 days and convicted last week of spreading false news and working as journalists without a license. Greste was deported to Australia. His colleagues were sentenced to three years in prison.

Peter Greste and his al-Jazeera colleagues were jailed by Egyptian authorities for 400 days and convicted last week of spreading false news and working as journalists without a license. Greste was deported to Australia. His colleagues were sentenced to three years in prison.

From the magazine: Al Jazeera’s Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy were awarded the Royal Television Society of the UK’s Judges’ Award in recognition of their “outstanding contribution to the advancement of television journalism”. In his acceptance speech Feb. 18, 2015, Greste paid tribute to everyone in the media community who helped campaign for the three journalists’ release.

This award isn’t a surprise of course – we knew about it even before I was released from prison a few weeks ago. But my heart is still beating as though I just ran here from Cairo.

I speak for all three of us – Baher, Fahmy and me – when I tell you that we are truly honoured and humbled to receive this award. There are the usual thank-yous of course – to the judges and our extraordinary families who’ve been through hell and back. But there are also a few other points I’d like to make while I’ve got a platform.

We journalists are a cranky, cantankerous lot. We are almost impossible to organise. We are by nature argumentative. We’d much rather compete than cooperate. And in fact about the only time we ever move in the same direction is when there is a bar in the room.

And yet, throughout our detention, the media have somehow abandoned the habits and instincts of a lifetime to line up behind us in an extraordinary way.

I’m not a student of media history, so I really can’t say it with any certainty, but I’d be willing to bet that journalists have never united around a single common cause in the way that they have ours. I know how important it has been.

See Peter Greste Sept. 25, 2015, at the Press Freedom Dinner in Melbourne. Click for more details.

See Peter Greste Sept. 25, 2015, at the Press Freedom Dinner in Melbourne. Click for more details.

For us, in prison, of course we knew a bit about it. We were aware of some of the demonstrations; we’d heard about the zip-the-lips campaign and the letters. We knew the subject was consistently coming up in news conferences and interviews. And most surprisingly, some of our most vocal supporters were Al Jazeera’s direct rivals, such as CNN and the BBC, who’d normally rather eat their own babies than acknowledge the opposition.

At a personal level, it was hugely empowering. It helped put rods of steel into our spines, because we came to understand that this was about something far bigger than the three of us alone. It was about the universal principles of freedom of expression, about the public’s right to know. And we knew you were right there with us.

But I also know that we really had no idea of just how extraordinarily broad and unified that sense of purpose turned out to be.

This matters not just because of the impact on us and our case. Right now, the very idea of a free press is increasingly under attack from everyone, from groups who take the heads off journalists through to individuals who shoot up a magazine office in Paris or a free-speech conference in Denmark, to governments trying to limit the scope of our work
with draconian legislation.

What you did was serve notice on anyone who would attack those most fundamental principles that we are united. You made it clear that these are things we are prepared to fight for as one. And whatever happens from here, we must not lose that extraordinary singular voice.

The other point I’d like to talk about is just how honoured Baher, Fahmy and I feel to be supported by some of the most impressive professionals in the industry.

After all, the plain fact is that in Cairo, we were doing nothing particularly radical or extraordinary. Our work was, I’d have to admit, pretty pedestrian. But that was because given the environment at the time, we knew we needed to play it safe. We quite deliberately avoided the boundaries.

Mural by Hego of Peter Greste on the front of the MEAA offices in Sydney.

Mural by Hego of Peter Greste on the front of the MEAA offices in Sydney.

But I’ve come to realise that amongst the gongs for genius, our community also needs to celebrate the banal. I don’t mean to be self-deprecating here. Quite the opposite. Remember – we are the media – the means by which information flows. When we are doing our jobs properly and freely, we allow a healthy society to talk to itself. The conversations are not always particularly dignified or edifying and at times they aren’t even especially rational. But in the same way that a family works out its differences and holds itself together by talking and arguing and getting to know one another, so the media helps keep our society from falling apart.

I know a lot of people would argue that social media has taken over that role, but we’ve learned rather tragically that social media tends to create silos. Small fringe groups retreat from the centre, talking only amongst themselves, becoming ever more radical as they become more isolated. So if any part of the community is cut off … if we are denied the opportunity to include everyone in those often rather ordinary stories and conversations … if we can’t question and challenge and involve everyone, I think we run the very serious risk of our societies becoming not more unified but more fragmented.

So, although this might seem rather counterintuitive, I’d like to accept this award not only on behalf of Baher and Fahmy, who’ve stood up and defended the principles of press freedom with courage and determination, but also for the 99 percent of us who didn’t come up here tonight.

Because that routine and generally unrecognised work that we all do is also worth celebrating and fighting for.

See the full speech at the Royal Television Society. Peter Greste (@PeterGreste) is a journalist for Al Jazeera who was arrested and held in Egypt for 400 days on charges of terrorism and spreading false news. He won the 2014 Walkley Award for Outstanding Contribution to Journalism.