400 Days Locked Up: Journalist Peter Greste on Surviving Egyptian Prison Term

September 28, 2015



Peter Greste

Al Jazeera journalist who imprisoned in Egypt for 400 days during a crackdown on Al Jazeera following the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. He is a longtime foreign correspondent who worked at the BBC, CNN and Reuters before joining Al Jazeera. In 2011, he won a Peabody Award for a documentary on Somalia.

Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste remembers his time in prison in Egypt, where the government held him for broadcasting false news. "Prison anywhere is pretty tough experience. And Egyptian prisons are never the easiest. I was in two police cells before we actually entered the prison system. And I think the police cells were probably some of the toughest experiences of my life. One cell was a box about eight-foot square, and it had a toilet in one corner and a sink in the other and a door and a tiny little exhaust fan in the corner. There were 16 guys in that box. It was unbelievably crowded. It was impossibly, impossibly crowded. And there were a couple of guys who had been in there for about six months, with almost no time out of that at all. It was quite shocking."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Our guest is Peter Greste. He’s one of the three Al Jazeera reporters who were arrested December 29th, 2013. You heard about them extensively over the 400 days that Peter Greste was in jail, and a bit more than that for Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy, who have just been pardoned and released from jail by the president of Egypt. I was wondering, Peter, if you’d go back to that day, to December 29, 2013. You’d been in Egypt for what? Like two weeks?

PETER GRESTE: Yeah, just two weeks. I was only in the bureau covering. This was—you know, I’m not an Egypt expert. I hadn’t worked in the country before, and I was in Kenya covering East Africa. That’s my patch. And so, they needed someone to work over that Christmas-New Year period, and so I agreed to go up and just fill in the bureau. And so, honestly, one of the things that continually frustrated me, in a way, is that we were arrested for what turns out to be some pretty mundane reporting. We weren’t doing anything particularly radical at the time. I was simply trying to make sure that we had the basic stories covered. It was all very routine journalism. There was no particular investigation. And we weren’t—certainly weren’t pushing the boundaries. So I was absolutely staggered, to be honest, when the secret service agents—or, the special service agents burst into our room and started picking up all of my equipment and dragged me off down to the police station.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you were covering—at that time, Mubarak was out, President Morsi was in?

PETER GRESTE: No, at that point, President Morsi had been ousted.

AMY GOODMAN: Had been ousted.

PETER GRESTE: Had already been ousted in June of 2013. There was the interim administration, which had been installed earlier that year, and that government was trying to—its main job was to organize new elections, fresh elections, which happened earlier in 2014. At the time, the Brotherhood was under enormous pressure. Shortly before we were arrested, the government banned the Brotherhood and declared them to be—declared them to be a terrorist organization, but hadn’t formally or legally gazetted them as a terrorist organization. So, as far as we were concerned, the Brotherhood still amounted to the official opposition. It had formed the government. It was the first legitimately elected administration that Egypt had ever had. It had been forced out of power, and the new government had taken to declaring it as a terrorist organization. Well, we were simply doing the job of any responsible journalist, particularly when it came to covering some fairly significant political changes that were taking place. The government was introducing new legislation. It introduced—it changed the constitution quite radically. And so we went and asked the Brotherhood what they thought of it. Now, of course, we weren’t acting as propagandists; we were simply doing, as I said, the responsible—the job of responsible journalists and producing balanced reports.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, explain what the government charged you with.

PETER GRESTE: We were charged basically with being propagandists for the Brotherhood. We were accused of—

AMY GOODMAN: Because to interview them was to be their propagandists, according to the Egyptian government.

PETER GRESTE: Basically, yes, yes. I mean, the charges were far more severe. We were charged with broadcasting false news. We were charged with broadcasting news to undermine national security. We were charged with trying to give the false impression of Egypt in a state of chaos, as a country at war. We didn’t—we did none of those things. You know, and one of the things we have continually said to the prosecutor was, "Look, if you believe that we broadcast false news, that we acted as propagandists, then, please, show us. I mean, by definition, the work that we produce is a matter of public record. So, where is the false news? Where is the propaganda?" One of the rather disturbing elements of the verdict, which—the written judgment, which was released only a few weeks ago, was the idea that—from the judges, who said that there was no need for specific technical evidence in our case, that the overall narrative was enough to convict us, which I think cuts to the very core of the problem here, that Egypt seems to believe that simply by working for an organization that’s financed by Qatar, we must, by definition, be members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and there’s no need for them to come up with any specific evidence of it.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to one of your last reports, Peter Greste, before you were arrested, covering clashes between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian security forces.

PETER GRESTE: As you can see, that the protests, the clashes are still ongoing. We understand that the Muslim Brotherhood students or the pro-Muslim Brotherhood students entered the university in some of the exam halls. They tried to tear up some of the exam papers and enforce a boycott of the exams in protest at the government. We understand that the authorities, the police moved in and fired tear gas. And it was the heat from the tear gas canisters which apparently set fire to some of the exam papers. Either way, what we have there is an ongoing clash that really represents the broader divisions that we’re seeing, that we saw yesterday, where supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of the anti-coup alliance took to the streets in open defiance of the government’s ban on protests, and in particular challenging the government to arrest them and enforce this five-year prison sentence, which the government has been threatening to impose on anybody who is convicted of taking part in these demonstrations.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Peter Greste in Cairo talking about what was happening at that time in the clashes between the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian security forces. Must bring you back. So, December 29th, they break into where you were staying.


AMY GOODMAN: And they took everything.

PETER GRESTE: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: And you go to prison.


AMY GOODMAN: What happens? Describe the time in prison for us, because often, for everyone obviously outside, that is a black box, once you disappear.

PETER GRESTE: Yeah, yeah. Look, Egyptian prisons are never the best of places. You know, prison anywhere is pretty tough experience. And Egyptian prisons are never the easiest. We went through two—I was in two police cells before we actually entered the prison system. And I think the police cells were probably some of the toughest experiences of my life. One of them was—one cell was a box about eight-foot square, and it had a toilet in one corner and a sink in the other and a door and a tiny little exhaust fan up in the corner. There were 16 guys in that box. It was unbelievably crowded. It was impossibly, impossibly crowded. And there were a couple of guys who had been in there for about six months, with almost no time out of that at all. It was quite—it was quite shocking. We were moved—I didn’t spend a great deal of time in there, only a couple of days, but it was enough to understand the kind of environment that an awful lot of people are in.

From there, we were moved into the prison system, into a number of prisons. I was kept in solitary confinement for the first couple of—first 10 days or so, before I was allowed to have any kind of connections with any other prisoners. Again, a small concrete box, basic water and food and a bed, but quite, quite tough conditions at that point. It was very, very cold. It was midwinter, of course, and even though Egypt gets hot in the summer, it’s also very, very cold in winter. The problem, I think—or I know that we also had probably—not probably, definitely—much better prison conditions than almost anybody else, largely, I think, because we had a lot of attention focused on us from a lot of human rights groups, from diplomats, from consular missions and so on.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you rejoin Baher and Mohamed?

PETER GRESTE: It took about a month. I was with—I was in a prison called Luman. I was alongside some of the main activists of the January 25th revolution, the youth activists, the secular activists, people like Alaa Abd El-Fattah, Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma, leaders of the April 6 Movement and several other groups. And then, just before our retrial—our trial, rather, our first trial began, I was moved to another prison called Mulhaq, which had most of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in it. And that’s where we were all put in one cell together.

AMY GOODMAN: Gave you a chance to really interview them.

PETER GRESTE: Well, yes, yeah, talk to them. We actually started what was called Mulhaq Radio, where, after lockdown, everyone would pull the beds up to the end of the doors, and there was a small hatch, and you’d sort of bellow out the doors and have these conversations up and down the corridors, and really sort of started to, I guess—you know, we’re journalists. We do what journalists normally do, and that’s kind of interrogate and try and understand what was going on, what were the deeper issues involved, what was the Brotherhood leadership thinking, because, again, we—you know, we wanted to know. We wanted to understand.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read an excerpt that you wrote from prison. It was published by Al Jazeera in 2014. Writing from the Tora Prison, Peter Greste, you say your colleagues, Fahmy and Baher, quote, "have been accused of being Muslim Brotherhood members, so they are being held in the far more draconian 'Scorpion prison' built for convicted terrorists. Fahmy has been denied the hospital treatment he badly needs for a shoulder injury he sustained shortly before our arrest. Both men spend 24 hours a day in their mosquito-infested cells, sleeping on the floor with no books or writing materials to break the soul-destroying tedium. Remember we have not been formally charged, much less convicted of any crime. But this is not just about three Al Jazeera journalists. Our arrest and continued detention sends a clear and unequivocal message to all journalists covering Egypt, both foreign and local." How did you get that letter out?

PETER GRESTE: I can’t tell you at this point. You know, the systems—there are ways of communicating in Egypt. There are still some people who helped, who supported us, who were interested in making sure that our case was heard. And so, I can’t go into too much detail, but I wrote that letter because I was concerned, because, as I said, at that particular point we hadn’t been charged. It was quite clear that this was heading in a very dangerous direction. This was really only a couple of weeks after we’d been arrested. And for the first few weeks, I really struggled trying to understand what was taking place, what had happened, why we were in this position. I felt that—initially thought it had been a mistake, that, you know, it would all be a matter—it would all be cleared up fairly quickly. We hadn’t done anything wrong. I knew we hadn’t done anything wrong. And so, once the authorities understood, then we’d be fine. But as the questioning progressed, it became clear to me that this really wasn’t just about what we had done ourselves, it was what we had come to represent, and that was the entire journalism community. And that’s why I wrote that letter, because I felt that the case would either be argued about the detail of what we had said, whether it was right for us to interview one figure and not the other, whether our language had been biased or not biased, when in fact what this really was about, as far as I was concerned, was the bigger issues of the press, of press freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: And describe what it was like to be brought to court, to stand in a cage.

PETER GRESTE: Yeah, that was tough. You know, the whole—that court is designed for terrorism cases, and so when you’re brought into that room and you’re placed in a cage with a buffer between you and everybody else in court, it’s quite intimidating. You know that this is how you’re being treated, that you’re being seen as a very—as not just a dangerous prisoner, but as a direct threat to the security of everybody else in that room. Yes, it is a—it was extremely difficult to see. And even watching these pictures now makes me feel—takes me back quite dramatically to those times.

AMY GOODMAN: Who was it who yelled, who shouted out, of the three of you?

PETER GRESTE: It was Fahmy and Baher. Both of them have far bigger voices. I’m routinely described by my colleagues as soft-spoken. My voice just doesn’t have the same kind of volume. And every time I tried to shout out, I never quite managed to get—to make it across the room. Everybody else was struggling to hear. So, they would—

AMY GOODMAN: And their point in doing that, what they were shouting?

PETER GRESTE: Well, we needed—we needed to communicate. We had no other way of directly communicating. The rooms were full of journalists.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re hearing people in the background, for our audience. This is the court. And for those who are watching, who are listening on the radio, we’re showing images of Baher and Mohamed and Peter in a cage.

PETER GRESTE: Yeah, in the cage in the court, and that was very—that felt—that was very confronting. Fahmy was basically shouting out messages to—obviously, to our families, but also the bigger messages that we felt needed to be—we needed to remind people of. We knew that there was a lot of press attention. We could see the journalists all arrayed before us. And we needed to make it very clear to them that we were innocent, that we felt that we were being charged—we were being used as an example rather than because of anything that we had actually done.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about that period of time? You spent in a cell with Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy how many days?

PETER GRESTE: I don’t remember exactly how many days we spent in that cell. It would have been—well, the trial ran over six months, so it was that six-month period that we were in that—in that cell.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you keep your sanity, day to day, in prison?

PETER GRESTE: For me, it’s—I didn’t think of it at this point—in quite so clear terms at the time, but ultimately it boiled down to dealing with mind, body and spirit, that you had to keep your physical fitness up. And so, every opportunity we had, you would—we went exercising. They’d let us out for an hour a day, and we would run for that full hour. We also had an exercise regime that the Australian Embassy brought in called 5BX, which is designed for a very confined space. In fact, I think it was designed by the Canadian Air Force for their airmen, if they were ever downed in World War II and captured. And it was very useful to us. We were able to keep relatively fit.

But the problem also in prison is that you’re faced with this amorphous blob of time, this shapeless lump of time, and if you don’t do something with that time, if you don’t impose a structure on it, it will send you crazy. And so, we would spend—I would spend a lot of time in meditation. We had nothing in there—no books, no writing material, no reading material. They even took our watches for the first period. And that made it—that made it psychologically extremely difficult. And so, if you—what happens is that your mind tends to start in on—turn in on itself. In that kind of environment, your mind is your own worst enemy. And so, for me, meditation was a way of controlling that sort of monkey mind, controlling the mind that—controlling your mind, stopping it from running out of control, from running amok.

And the other part of it was also dealing with keeping mentally fit. So we would play mind games, memory games. We’d do—try and consciously spend time being creative. Sometimes we had food delivered with foil, wrapped up, and we’d save the foil, and we made foil murals on the walls, you know, sort of stuck it up with soap—anything, basically, to keep ourselves mentally active, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: You and Baher came up with a universal media freedom charter?

PETER GRESTE: That’s right. We, Baher and I, were trying to think about what—first of all, what we could—why we were in this situation and about the bigger issues around press freedom, not just in Egypt, but globally, because I don’t think the issue is just—is confined. Even in Australia, we have some fairly draconian laws that we’re fighting at the moment to try and make sure that we keep press free to do the fundamental job that we play in a democracy. And so, we’re seeing—we’re seeing the press freedom eroded quite dramatically around the world. We felt that there needed to be some kind of clear statement of the principles of journalism and the roles and responsibilities that both journalists and governments need to have. Something—we recognized that something that has force of law is probably too difficult to get through, but something along the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the kind of thing that we’d be looking for that has—that sets a gold standard of the way the relationship should work, of the roles and responsibilities of both government and the media, that has, if not force of law, certainly a lot of moral authority. This is still very much a work in progress. This might not be the best solution that we’re—or the only solution, but we need to do something to protect journalists in these kinds of situations.

AMY GOODMAN: In Egypt, there are still more than 20 journalists who are behind bars, the most high-profile of them, Abdullah Al-Fakharany, who has received a life sentence, also Mahmoud Abu Zeid, who’s also known as Shawkan, who’s been held for over two years without trial.

PETER GRESTE: Look, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists has done those surveys. The Egyptian government insists that it is operating within the law, insists that those journalists are there because they broke—that there were specific breaches of the law.

AMY GOODMAN: Like with you.

PETER GRESTE: As they did with us, exactly. The fact that we have been pardoned rather than acquitted, I think, is still concerning for us. I would rather have our names cleared by the judicial process.

AMY GOODMAN: Although you haven’t been pardoned.

PETER GRESTE: But I haven’t—no, I haven’t been pardoned, and so we need to go through that process.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the role of Al Jazeera? Mohamed Fahmy sued Al Jazeera for breach of contract, for saying that they didn’t—they weren’t concerned enough with security. Your thoughts about whether Al Jazeera stood up for you enough?

PETER GRESTE: Look, my feeling—there’s no doubt that Al Jazeera made some mistakes in the way that they handled our case, in the way that they handled things up in the lead-up to our arrest.

AMY GOODMAN: Because a group from Al Jazeera English was arrested before you all came in.

PETER GRESTE: Yes, yeah, that’s right. And there had been a lot of pressure on Al Jazeera and the journalists and the teams in Egypt. You know, Al Jazeera has never had the best relationship with the Egyptian authorities, and we understood that. And certainly there are some difficult questions to answer, and we’ve been through some fairly difficult forensic debates with our bosses. And, you know, it’s very—it’s still very much a work in progress.

But my view has always been that Al Jazeera, as an institution, was not on trial. If Egypt had problems with Al Jazeera as a network or with Qatar as a government, then it needed to deal with those organizations and those institutions at the appropriate level, not come after some guys on the ground. We were the ones who were specifically charged with aiding a terrorist organization, not the network. It was the three of us. We were specifically the ones that were charged with broadcasting false news. And so, we’ve always said, "Where was the evidence against us?" There was none. We weren’t involved with any of that. We were working as good professional journalists. We know our job. We know the limits of what we should and shouldn’t be doing. And there was nothing—you know, we did nothing criminal. We did not collude with terrorists. We certainly weren’t doing anything unethical.

AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to ask what it meant to you, journalists around the world putting tape over their mouths in solidarity with you.

PETER GRESTE: Oh, Amy, this was extraordinary. You know, I was—we were absolutely overwhelmed by the scale of the response, both by our professional colleagues and by the public, by diplomats and politicians. You know, as you would know, journalists are about as difficult to organize as a herd of cats. Instinctively, we fight each other. We’re a skeptical, cynical, cantankerous bunch, and extremely competitive. And so, to see our direct rivals, like the BBC, like Christiane Amanpour from CNN, all taping their mouths up, holding "Free AJ staff" signs was unbelievably gratifying to us, because it made it very clear that the journalists around the world understood the significance of what we were going through and why this fight was so important, because it wasn’t just about the three of us, it was about the institution of press freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, of course, there were your families, speaking out all along the way. Last year, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said he would not intervene on the sentencing of the three Al Jazeera journalists to between seven and 10 years in prison, even as international outcry spread. I wanted to play a clip of your father, of Juris Greste, responding to that decision.

JURIS GRESTE: This is a very dark time, not only for our family, but for journalism generally. We are devastated, shocked and dismayed at this finding. We are not usually a family of superlatives, but I have to say this morning my vocabulary fails to convey just how shattered we are. Journalism is not a crime, or you should all be behind bars. It’s as simple as that. This man, our son Peter, is an award-winning journalist. He is not a criminal. He’s not a criminal.

AMY GOODMAN: That is your father, Juris Greste. Where was he speaking?

PETER GRESTE: He was speaking in Brisbane, at the ABC studios in Brisbane. Yeah, watching that was quite difficult. You know, my father, my parents went through hell through that year. They were extraordinary advocates for us. They found a voice that I don’t think even they knew that they had. They fought and campaigned and lobbied. You know, my father is a retired architect. My mother is a social worker—again, a retired social worker. And all of a sudden they became international lawyers and diplomats and campaigners, completely outside their comfort zone. And so, you know, it was an incredibly tough time for all the family. But to be honest with you, I don’t think I’d be here now if it weren’t for them.


PETER GRESTE: Because they were the voice. They gave—they took my story and made it human. They made people understand what was really going on with us at a very human level. They made people appreciate what was going on. They allowed people to empathize and identify not just with us, but with the family, the extended family. And I think they helped really convey the fact that we weren’t terrorists, that we weren’t criminals, that we were professional journalists who were working with all the integrity and professionalism that we could muster.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to the end of this discussion. Our guest for the hour is Peter Greste, an Al Jazeera journalist who was imprisoned in Egypt for 400 days during the crackdown on Al Jazeera following the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi. He was arrested December 29th, 2013, with his two Al Jazeera colleagues, Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy. Back with him in a moment.

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