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AUDIO: Peter Greste makes media freedom plea for solidarity, standards

Al-Jazeera news channel's Australian journalist Peter Greste in court in Cairo. He was freed and deported in 2015. Image: RNZ Mediawatch/AFP

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Item: 10149

By RNZ Mediawatch presenter Colin Peacock
WELLINGTON (RNZ Mediawatch/Pacific Media Watch): Reporters Without Borders said last Monday’s bombing in Kabul killed more journalists than any other single attack in Afghanistan since the ousting of the Taliban in  2001. One of the casualties was Shah Marai, photographer for the French news agency AFP.

In 2016, he wrote an emotional article on the AFP website about the risks he faced. He wrote:

"I don’t dare to take my children for a walk. I have five and they spend their time cooped up inside the house. Every morning as I go to the office and every evening when I return home, all I think of are cars that can be booby-trapped, or of suicide bombers coming out of a crowd."

In recent years, the Western media presence in Afghanistan has waned and local reporters have replaced foreign correspondents from major news outfits.

Afghanistan was Peter Greste's first full posting as a BBC correspondent in 1995. [He is now professor of jourmalism and UNESCO chair at the University of Queensland.]

In 2005, he arrived in Somalia's capital Mogadishu on assignment with BBC producer Kate Peyton. He was close by when she was shot outside their hotel the day they arrived.

She died of her wounds in hospital there. Peter Greste says it was an assassination targeting a journalist.

Last Monday he said the Kabul attack was a black day for media freedom.

“When the truth is too uncomfortable, they go after the media” he said on hearing the news.

Egypt hostile
He and two colleagues discovered this in Egypt, another country Reporters Without Borders identified last week as actively hostile to journalists.

Working for Al Jazeera, Peter Greste was jailed on trumped up terrorism charges for more than 400 days, never knowing when he would be free again. It triggered a remarkable campaign in which rival media outlets banded together to demand their release under the slogan: "Journalism is not a crime."

Peter Greste tells that story in his recent book The First Casualty  - and he also sets out what it he thinks it signified in the context of post-9/11 journalism. 

The title comes from a saying widely attributed to a US senator who said 100 years ago: "The first casualty when war comes is truth." 

Forty three years ago another Australian correspondent - Phillip Knightley - wrote a classic reckoning about war reporting with the same title: The First Casualty

Knightley's book lifted the lid on how the coverage of war had been skewed by propaganda, military authorities and governments since the Crimean War in the mid 1850s. 

The book came out as the Vietnam war was grinding to a halt in 1975, but Phillip Knightley doggedly added chapters to later editions to cover the Falklands War, the first Gulf War, the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo.  

Embedded journalism
As an octogenarian, he tracked the impact of embedded journalism and the spread of modern communications and "weaponised" PR in the post-9/11 wars.

Before he died in late 2016, he had made many correspondents and editors reconsider their role as truth-teller or propagandist.

"The age of the war correspondent as hero appears to be over," Knightley concluded in his 2004 edition. 

 The First Casualty, by Peter Greste

Peter Greste, who describes his The First Casualty as "part memoir, part history", believes journalists themselves are becoming the victims of politics.

"This has nothing to do with us and everything to do with press freedom. It is ... about intimidating every journalist working in Egypt," he concluded while in prison in Cairo.

The final chapter of the book is a plea for a commitment to professional standards. 

"This isn't just a one-way street. It isn't just governments who have a responsibility here," Peter Greste told Mediawatch

Scouring his record
He says the Egyptian government and Al Jazeera's critics would have been scouring his record while he was behind bars for hints of bias, sympathy for its opponents, or any looseness with the facts. 

"If the Egyptians had found anything in our history to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of the public, people might have thought that where there's smoke there may be fire. If the confidence in our work had slipped, public support for our cause would have crumbled," said Peter Greste, who's now UNESCO Chair of Journalism and Communication at the University of Queensland.

"It underlines the desperate, vital need to maintain public support when it comes to arguing for media freedom. Without it I'd still be in prison" he told Mediawatch. 

The collision of opinion and reporting that's increasingly common in media today bothers him. 

"As an industry we need to take a good look at ourselves," he said. 

"We report news, then there's analysis and comment on the news. The freedom to do that absolutely should not be limited. But we need to maintain a clear line between what is news and what is comment," he said.

"There used to be a time when the only time you'd see a front-page comment was after a massive news event which justified front-page editorialising. It's that kind of leakage I'm worried about," he said. 

"I understand why news organisations are doing this - because the business models have collapsed in the digital revolution and we're all in a desperate hunt for clicks and eyeballs and attention online," he said. 

"But if we don't keep a strong sense of values and maintain that self-discipline, we will lose public support and public trust. In an era of fake news, we could end up in real trouble," he said. 

This item is published under the content sharing agreement between Radio New Zealand and the AUT Pacific Media Centre.

The MEAA-IFJ report on the state of journalism in Australia, NZ and the Asia-Pacific

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Pacific Media Watch is compiled for the Pacific Media Centre as a regional media freedom and educational resource by a network of journalists, students, stringers and commentators.
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