Wrong sex, wrong class, wrong job: Why Australians should care about jailed journalist Peter Greste

Article by Kristin Shorten /
News.com.au /
June 08, 2017 /
Click here to view original /

SCHAPELLE Corby is a drug-smuggling bogan.

Lara Logan is a well-known US TV reporter.

Peter Greste is none of those things — and until this very story was published, many educated, news-consuming Australians were not reading about him.

Statistics don’t lie. You read about Corby’s Bali bail; Logan’s Egyptian ordeal and career plunge; and almost anything Karl Stefanovic does is hoovered up.

Award-winning TV man Greste has arguably suffered the greatest injustice served on an innocent Aussie overseas so why do so many seem uninterested?

I know, I know. No one cares about journos. And scandal-free Greste — one of three Al-Jazeera journalists jailed for simply doing their job — isn’t exactly soap opera talent.

Nor is he a household “star” name. Imagine the outrage if he were someone beamed into our living rooms daily, like Nine’s Stefanovic, Seven’s David Koch or CBS beauty Logan.


Why did we care about Corby’s jail ordeal in Bali?

“Schapelle (Corby) was the ideal victim — former beauty school student, young, pretty, photogenic and had a huge cast of characters in her family,” said University of Melbourne’s Senior Lecturer in Social and Political Sciences, Dr Lauren Rosewarne.

“Here we’ve got a professional man who’s got parents in their late 70s. They haven’t fronted the media in any huge way. They’ve been using a family spokesman. His brothers have been going back and forth to Egypt but they’re no Mercedes (Corby).

“It’s a class distinction as well. These are not the type of people who are going to be beating their chest and screaming at the press.

“If we had a crying wife and a couple of kids that would make it more of a human interest story but it’s hard because we don’t have a lot of the images that the mainstream media need to make it an interesting story.”

Greste was one of three Al-Jazeera journalists sentenced by a Cairo court on Monday to at least seven years in prison on terrorism-related charges stemming from an interview with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Greste’s story — of leaving Australia in 1991 to pursue a career as a foreign correspondent — can’t be packaged like a daytime drama.

“Whereas someone putting drugs in a boogie board bag and taking them to Bali is a simple story. It’s easily packaged and easily explained to the public,” Dr Rosewarne said.

“It’s a story that has characters we can laugh at, it flames the fire between people who love and hate bogans. The Schapelle story was packaged like a daytime drama. We understood it.

“When it comes to Arabic countries which we don’t understand beyond this question of terrorism … when it’s to do with national politics like what’s going on in Egypt it becomes very difficult to tell that story in a simple way.”


Dr Rosewarne said it’s also an “endlessly complicated story playing out a whole world away”.

“The population doesn’t know enough about what’s going on in these countries to understand why this is such a big event,” she said.

“There’s probably a lot of murkiness or misunderstanding about why an Australian journalist is locked up there. That sort of sketchy detail has people opting out.

“I don’t think people know enough about what’s happened to make that decision (about his innocence) because when we look at other Aussies-locked-up-abroad stories like Schapelle there’s an assumption of guilt.

“There will probably parts of the population who think he’s probably guilty of something and that ‘where there’s smoke there’s fire’ versus people who just opt out.”

But Greste didn’t break the law. He wasn’t even reckless. He was simply doing his job, commendably on all accounts.

He hasn’t sought public sympathy or support which perhaps explains why, as AMC Media’s Anthony McClellan says, “there’s no real emotional connection to his plight”.

“It’s hard to motivate the Australian public about an Australian journalist who they really don’t know,” he said.

“Peter, whilst professionally a top notch journalist, didn’t have a high profile here before he left and then he spent years overseas working on reports that were generally not shown here in Australia.

“Also, Peter is caught up in complex political events in Egypt, which most Australians don’t care about or understand, making that connection with Peter even more difficult.

“Another factor, unfortunately, is the fact that the media and journalists are not particularly held in high regard by the public. If Peter was a doctor saving lives, then the public reaction might be more engaged.”

He is not well known, like a network news anchor or reporter.

Remember the world outrage that greeted the horrendous assault of CBS “face” Logan in Egypt’s Tahrir Square? While a despicable and terifying ordeal whoever the victim, her fame made it much larger in the eyes of the media and public.


Making matters murkier in the minds of those watching at home is that Greste worked for Al Jazeera English.

“This isn’t Mike Munro or some Australian journalist who we’re familiar with. To a lot of people he would be an unknown and people might be asking why Al Jazeera is his employer?” Dr Rosewarne said.

“A lot of Australians would be asking what Al Jazeera is. If it was an American news outlet or the BBC there’d be a lot more gravitas and more legitimacy attached than the popular perception here of Al Jazeera.

“The fact that Tony Abbott took such a long time to talk about it as well probably adds fuel to the fire. Other world leaders were talking about this long before Tony Abbott. If our Prime Minister doesn’t care, why should we?”

Fighting for their freedom … Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaking about the Peter Greste case at the start of Question Time in the House of Representatives Chamber in Parliament House in Canberra. Picture: Kym SmithSource:News Corp Australia

Because Australians value a free press, access to information and our safety overseas.

“Here we’ve got a person doing their job in the traditional sense of what we expect the media to do. Without them so much information we would never have access to,” Dr Rosewarne said.

“This is why this story should be of interest — without journalists like Peter Greste we wouldn’t know what’s going on in these countries. Without this case we wouldn’t know about the perils of going to these countries and what happens in countries which have such severe restrictions on the press.”

Experts fear Greste’s case will deter correspondents from covering regions like Egypt.

“The fear of going to work in these countries now will potentially allow human rights abuses to go unreported and because there’s no camera or worldwide audience to what’s happening,” she said.

“It’s an Australian journalist doing a service for all of us and shouldn’t be punished for doing their job.

“It’s an injustice.”

Mr McClellan, a former journalist, said Greste’s desperate family now need to keep him in the headlines.

“Strategically it has been difficult for the Greste family up to now as they had to be careful nothing they did or said might have adversely effected the court decision,” he said.

“I think now that Peter is in jail, this story will move off the front page as an inevitable part of the news cycle.

“The Greste family will need funds to launch a continuing campaign to keep Peter in the public eye, so he doesn’t become one of the ‘forgot’. And the real target of such a campaign is our own government as much as the Egyptians.

Outside their cages … Australian journalist Peter Greste and other co-defendants are accompanied by a police officer outside court’s cage during their trial for allegedly supporting a terrorist group and spreading false information, in Cairo, Egypt. Picture: KHALED ELFIQISource:News Corp Australia

“One way forward is for a consumer and government led boycott of Egypt (including) travel and trade.”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott vowed to keep lobbying Egypt’s government to free Greste.

But last night Egypt’s newly-elected president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi quashed any hope that he would overturn the three journalists’ lengthy prison sentences, saying Egypt’s authorities “will not interfere in judicial matters”.

“We have to respect judiciary rulings, and not comment them even if others don’t understand them,” he said in a televised speech.

Sisi’s comments came a day after the White House urged the Egyptian authorities to pardon the journalists.

But a presidency official told AFP Sisi cannot legally do so until a final court ruling after any appeals.