KUALA LUMPUR – April 19, 2017: He spent 400 days in an Egyptian prison but for journalist Peter Greste, it wasn’t such a scary or depressing experience.
Maybe being positive from the very beginning — that he will survive the ordeal — helped him go through it.
The Al-Jazeera war correspondent was jailed with three colleagues after being accused of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, which was deemed a terrorist organisation, by the Egyptian authorities in the aftermath of the country’s 2013 uprising.
Greste today spoke before an audience of local journalists at Wisma Bernama in an event organised by the National Press Club.
“There’s food, water and shelter… but the biggest challenge was to stay mentally fit because prisons are designed to break your mind,” he said.
To the Australian his idea of staying mentally sober was to perform a prison-based mock radio show with the other inmates.
“The show usually begins with the latest headlines and followed by a string of interviews with the other inmates,” quipped Greste.
The eight square feet cell was shared with 16 others. There were one sink, one exhaust fan and one squat toilet.
He eventually ended up in solitary confinement where most of the others were former Egyptian government officials, including former president Mohamed Morsi .
“As a journalist, can you imagine the feeling of being able to talk and interview officials that you would usually spent years to get in touch with?” recalled Greste, as he related how he talked with others in the neighbouring cells.
Greste’s arrest sparked an international outcry, especially among journalists who deemed it as a gross violation of press freedom.
After being found guilty and sentenced to seven years jail, Greste was deported to Australia in 2015. He said he would not have been deported had it not been for the immense pressure from the international community.
“The #FreeAJStaff campaign received 3 billion impressions worldwide and was supported by not just the press but also the public and politicians. That shows the kind of power that journalists can amass if they stand united,” he said.
It was due to his behind-bars experience that Greste noticed that the global war on terrorism under the pretext of safeguarding national security is slowly eradicating press freedom.
“Edgrogan (Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan) used the recent coup staged against him as an excuse to lock up journalists.
“Trump (United States President Donald Trump) stopped publishing the guest list of White House visitors.
“Obama (former US president Barack Obama) even went after whistleblowers and used espionage laws more than his predecessors did,” he said.
Such fallacy, Greste said, was something that journalists need to fight against because if they do not, they are indirectly allowing totalitarianism to stifle press freedom.