Peter Greste

July 3, 2014

Adjourned debate on motion of Hon. G.E. Gago:

That this council—

1.Condemns the conviction and sentence given to Australian journalist Peter Greste and his colleagues from the Al Jazeera network; and

2.Supports the commonwealth government in its diplomatic efforts to bring about a positive outcome for Mr Greste and his family.

(Continued from 3 July 2014.)

The Hon. D.W. RIDGWAY (Leader of the Opposition) ( 15:35 :10 ): I rise to speak to this motion briefly on behalf of the opposition. On 23 June this year, Mr Peter Greste, along with two of his Al Jazeera colleagues, was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. The allegations made against Mr Greste, his conviction and seemingly arbitrary sentence have been widely publicised and have justifiably received international condemnation. Mr Greste was wrongly charged with spreading false news and supporting Egypt's former prime minister Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.

More appalling than the false allegations laid against Mr Greste was the manner in which the trial was conducted. Given the absurdity of the allegations made against Mr Greste, his trial has been heavily criticised as being politicised and has in no way been conducted in accordance with the basic principles of natural justice.

During his trial, the prosecution presented profoundly absurd and irrelevant evidence, including blatantly photoshopped images, pictures of Greste on holiday with his family in Germany, and a song played in the courtroom taken from what was incorrectly alleged to be Mr Greste's phone—and that is just to name a few of those profoundly absurd and irrelevant pieces of evidence. The prosecution was never able to illustrate how the bizarre evidence was relevant to the charges laid against Mr Greste, and it has been reported that prosecution lawyers demanded $180,000 from Mr Greste's defence lawyers to obtain access to the evidence to be used in his own trial.

Following this incongruous trial, Mr Greste was sentenced to seven years in prison. The public outcry and condemnation Mr Greste's conviction and sentence have received have been far-reaching and overwhelming. The Australian government has appealed to Egypt's Australian Ambassador, Dr Hassan El-Laithy, saying that they are 'appalled by the severity' of the sentence, and the federal government's sentiments have been echoed by the US Secretary of State.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navi Pillay, is also part of the international chorus condemning the conviction and sentence. Ms Pillay highlighted the legitimacy of Mr Greste's actions and Egypt's violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Egypt has ratified. Mr Greste's conviction and sentence have also received condemnation across the board, from media and journalism industry groups. Unfortunately, Mr Greste has been charged, convicted and imprisoned for exercising his right to hold opinions and report on the events which unfolded in Egypt.

Recently, the Egyptian President conceded that he wished Mr Greste and his colleagues had been 'deported after their arrest instead of being put on trial'. In light of these comments, and having faith in the Australian government's diplomatic efforts throughout this incredibly sensitive issue, I hope that a sensible outcome can be achieved and that Mr Greste and his colleagues will be freed. I can only imagine the sense of injustice and the feeling of helplessness and anguish Mr Greste and his family must be going through. I extend my deepest condolences to Mr Greste and his family during this very difficult time.

In closing, I echo the statements made by Australia's foreign minister, Julie Bishop, the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Hon. Gail Gago, and, as such, I commend the motion to the house.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS ( 15:38 :50 ): I rise today on behalf of the Greens to support this motion the government has brought to this council. I certainly believe that we as a council should be addressing the unjust situation in which Mr Peter Greste, noted journalist and Australian citizen, finds himself.

As outlined by minister Gago when she introduced this motion, Mr Greste has been found guilty and has been convicted of reporting false news by an Egyptian court. This is just one more in a series of disturbing developments that have plagued Mr Greste's case. While Egypt is struggling its way through a period of political turmoil to achieve democratic government, the unfair conviction of Mr Greste and his fellow journalists is taking a step in the opposite direction.

In a democratic society, freedom of the press is of the utmost importance. Mr Greste has been accused and convicted of reporting false news and of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood. The evidence against Mr Greste and his colleagues has been flimsy at best and, now, for him to receive a seven-year gaol sentence is unjust to say the least. The lack of justice in Mr Greste's trial is simply shocking, with obviously doctored photos being presented as evidence as well as technical advisers giving the same statements, despite having been meant to have prepared their statements separately. Furthermore, audio recordings supposedly from Mr Greste's phone were in Arabic, yet he does not speak that language. The integrity of this so-called evidence has been corrupted, and our government needs to call for Egypt to address what is clearly procedural abuse in its courts.

The deterioration of democracy in Egypt is deeply disturbing. The same judicial system that has imprisoned Mr Greste and his fellow journalists merely for the doing their jobs has, in a mass trial, sentenced 529 people to death in March, with a further 683 in April. Furthermore, more than 16,000 protesters have been arrested since the military coup of July 2013. This is the unjust system within which Mr Greste finds himself. It is little wonder that those close to him, and the international community at large, are concerned for his wellbeing and, of course, that of his colleagues.

We need to ask ourselves: are these the actions of a democratic nation? The suppression of a free press and the ongoing imprisonment of journalists is utterly unacceptable, and our government should be laying down all diplomatic options, including sanctions, on the table. Yet our Prime Minister has still not engaged on any level, particularly compared with other governments—indeed, the United States is intervening for us. Is our own government really so unwilling to protect one of its own citizens?

I would like to highlight to this chamber the double standard our Prime Minister is displaying here in not engaging in attempts to free Mr Greste. Last year he personally visited the Middle East to campaign for the release of two Australian businessman, yet he did not intervene on behalf of an Australian citizen participating in a non-violent environmental protest and he is not intervening here now on behalf of Mr Greste.

I would like to recognise the outstanding work of consular officials who have done everything in their power to support Mr Greste and his family, but we must acknowledge that this case is now beyond consular assistance. The Prime Minister needs to act on his responsibilities and speak out against injustice done to Australian citizens. How our government can stand silent and inactive in the face of such injustice beggars belief. It is to our national shame that we will not stand up for our own citizens, and, indeed, seem to rely on other nations and organisations to do so on our behalf. Reporting the news is not a crime. Mr Greste is innocent and an Australian citizen, and should therefore have the support of his government, the federal government.

Where our government has sat idle the community has not, and there are simple things everyday Australians can do and are doing to show Egypt that we do not support its blatant abuse of the judicial system. Australians can stop visiting Egypt and can boycott Egyptian products. Indeed, I have sent the consulate that message, that I am doing so myself. This sends a strong financial message. There has also been a very popular petition started by Amnesty International that people can sign, which just recently had over 83,000 signatures.

Australia as a country should also stop funding through the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, as Egypt clearly does not meet the bank's criteria for democracy. The people can call on the government to do this. As Peter Reith said in his article entitled 'Australians must stop visiting Egypt to support Peter Greste', Australians should not hesitate to vent their views on Egypt's denial of basic human rights, and our citizens can do so by contacting the Egyptian Embassy.

To conclude my remarks, I reiterate: reporting the news is not a crime. What Mr Greste has experienced is a gross miscarriage of justice, and the Australian government should be doing everything in its power to bring him home and set him free. I commend the motion to the council.

The Hon. T.T. NGO ( 15:43 :50 ): I also rise to add my voice to those raised in protest against the imprisonment of Peter Greste and his Al Jazeera colleagues in Egypt. Peter Greste, a London-based journalist, has worked in numerous war zones for Reuters, the BBC, CNN, and, in recent times, Al Jazeera, which we know is an English language news service broadcasting from Qatar.

It was on 23 June that Peter Greste, his Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy, and producer Baher Mohamed—all highly respected media practitioners—were convicted on charges that reportedly included joining a terrorist organisation (namely the Muslim Brotherhood), publishing false news harming national security, terrorising people, and harming the people's general benefit. Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy were sentenced each to seven years' gaol. Baher Mohamed was sentenced to 10 years in gaol. All three have been detained since December 2013. The brief footage we saw of Mr Greste and his colleagues behind the bars of a cage inside the courtroom was shocking, but what brought them to that plight?

The backstory starts with the 2011 demonstration which resulted in the removal from office of the dictatorial Hosni Mubarak, who had held a brutal sway over Egypt for some 30 years. Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, was democratically elected president in 2012. In 2013, Dr Morsi was ousted in a military coup. The new military government pronounced the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organisation and in 2014 Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former army general, was elected president. This story is important to our understanding of how Mr Greste and his colleagues found themselves in that courtroom cage in June this year.

Despite Al Jazeera's claim of editorial independence, I understand that Egyptian authorities are of the view that the broadcaster supports the Muslim Brotherhood. After the military coup, Al Jazeera's office was attacked and workers were arrested. All, Peter Greste among them, have vehemently denied association with the Muslim Brotherhood. They maintain that they were just doing their jobs: gathering and disseminating the news. It is widely acknowledged that the evidence adduced in the journalists' trial was less than compelling. Even so, and despite enormous international interest in the operation of the Egyptian judiciary in this and similar matters, guilty verdicts and lengthy sentences were passed down.

A number of commentators have referred to this as a sham or a show trial. Many analysts contend that the purpose of the trial was to intimidate reporters and silence criticism of the current regime, and many leaders have made their views clear. The UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that 'It is not a crime to criticise the authorities, or to interview people who hold unpopular views.' John Kerry, US Secretary of State, has called the decision chilling and draconian. Geoffrey Robertson QC, human rights lawyer, has said that Egypt should be tried in the International Court of Justice. The foreign minister, Hon. Julie Bishop, has said that the government is appalled by the severity of the sentence.

I wholeheartedly support all democratic efforts by our government to secure Mr Greste's release and return him to his family and friends. I understand that all avenues of appeal must be exhausted before a presidential pardon can be contemplated, but can only hope that the matter can be resolved in the near future, rather than at some nebulous time years from now.

I want to broaden my remarks briefly and point out that the arrest, detention and imprisonment of Mr Greste and his coworkers is symptomatic of what is happening with regard to press freedom in Egypt and in many other parts of the world today, including the country I was born in.

In Egypt, which is acknowledged to be one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, people working in the media are being raided, rounded up and put on trial for disseminating the news. In the past 12 months, six journalists have been murdered in crossfire and in targeted attacks. Reporters have been assaulted and shot at while covering events in Cairo; their equipment confiscated and their ability to carry out jobs compromised, sometimes fatally. This is wrong in every conceivable way.

Our journalists—all journalists—have the right, freely and without personal jeopardy, to hold governments and other entities that act in our names to account, to illuminate the truth and to expose injustice. Peter Greste has written from prison in exactly these terms. He wrote:

…this is not just about three al-Jazeera journalists. Our arrest and continued detention [and imprisonment] sends a clear and unequivocal message to all journalists covering Egypt, both foreign and local.

The state will not tolerate hearing from the [Muslim Brotherhood] or any other critical voices. The prisons are overflowing with anyone who opposes or challenges the government.

He continued:

…our arrest is not a mistake, and as a journalist this IS my battle…I have no particular fight with the Egyptian government, just as I have no interest in supporting the [Muslim Brotherhood] or any other group here. But as a journalist I am committed to defending a fundamental freedom of the press that no one in my profession can credibly work without. One that is deemed vital to the proper functioning of any open democracy, including Egypt's with its new constitution.

Of course we will continue to fight this from inside prison and through the judicial system here. But our freedom, and more importantly the freedom of the press here, will not come without loud sustained pressure from human rights and civil society groups, individuals and governments who understand that Egypt's stability depends as much as on its ability to hold open honest conversations among its people and the world as it does on its ability to crush violence.

We know it is already happening, and all of us are both moved and strengthened by the extraordinary support we have already had, but it needs to continue.

I can only endorse these eloquent remarks by Mr Greste and those of the numerous governments, human rights organisations and individuals around the globe who have protested this cruel and unjust conviction—a conviction arrived at on the basis of what would seem to be far from credible evidence.

Recently, we have heard of the terrible events around the world, from the shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine to the continued bloodshed between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This news has been brought to us by committed and courageous journalists operating under enormously difficult conditions, just like Peter Greste and his coworkers.

I urge the federal government not to lose sight of Peter Greste and his fellow journalists. I urge the federal government to redouble its diplomatic representations to secure his release and to support the release of his colleagues. I look forward to Mr Greste’s return to his family and friends here in Australia—a country where that precious freedom of the press must continue to be supported, nurtured and defended by our governments and our people. I commend the motion.

The Hon. J.A. DARLEY ( 15:54 :21 ): I rise in support of this motion. Unfortunately, the world is now familiar with the name Peter Greste, for all the wrong reasons. Peter and his two colleagues, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, were arrested on 29 December 2013 by Egyptian authorities, accused of reporting news which was damaging to national security. Soon after images of Peter Greste and his colleagues being wheeled into the Egyptian courts like caged animals were shared across the globe. Those images speak volumes about the way Peter and his colleagues have been treated throughout this entire ordeal.

I understand that the prosecution supposedly relied upon bogus evidence, such as Gotye's song Somebody That I Used To Know which was found on Mohamed Fahmy's mobile phone and which was presented to the court with no explanation as to how it related to the case. I also understand that the prosecution presented a picture which had clearly been photoshopped to place Mr Fahmy in the same frame as Egypt's former High Military Council. The prosecution also presented audio of an unknown person seeing video footage of horses and sheep farming to support their case.

All this was presented without any explanation as to how it supported the trio's guilt of the charges laid upon them. This is ridiculous and highlights the farcical circumstances around this whole matter. Given the strength of the prosecution's case, or rather lack thereof, it is no wonder that the whole world was shocked to learn that not only had the trio been detained on such charges but appalled to learn that they had been found guilty of the charges, and then finally disgusted at the length of the sentence imposed. I can only imagine the anguish Peter's friends, family and especially his parents feel about the outcome given the particulars preceding the verdict.

The Hon. K.L. VINCENT ( 15:56 :24 ): I will briefly put on the record Dignity for Disability's support of this motion. Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

I do not doubt that all our colleagues here today would agree with me that this situation is a clear breach of that article, but in my opinion it is also a breach going against human nature. It is human nature to share information, to share ideas and yes, sometimes disagree, and this is how we grow as a society and as nations. So to see a difference of opinion resulting in the imprisonment of a journalist who was simply doing their job is outrageous and very concerning, not only for journalists in the field but for those in our community who need to be aware of world affairs to be able to be involved in their communities and grow through the sharing of information. With those few words, Dignity for Disability certainly stands with Peter Greste and his colleagues and we support the motion.

The Hon. G.E. GAGO (Minister for Employment, Higher Education and Skills, Minister for Science and Information Economy, Minister for the Status of Women, Minister for Business Services and Consumers) ( 15:57 :54 ): I thank members for their contributions to this important motion. Without journalists like Peter Greste, our reliable and objective knowledge of public events in other countries would be severely limited. This case highlights the perils that journalists, such as Mr Greste and his colleagues, must face in order that we have a free, unfettered and frank media and how quickly that fragile right can evaporate if we do not show that we are prepared to defend it.

It is encouraging to read the comments made earlier this month by the Egyptian President, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, where he conceded that he wished 'they were deported after their arrest instead of being put on trial'. Despite these words, the long-term outcome for Mr Greste and his colleagues remains distinctly grim. Again, I thank the honourable members for their support and their contributions and commend the motion to the council.

Motion carried.

 

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