Peter Greste: Australia ‘succumbed to the rhetoric around terrorism’

Nationalism and xenophobia are bigger risks to Australia than terrorism, says journalist Peter Greste.

“Australia likes to think of itself as the larrikin country, the country that calls a spade a f—ing shovel; straight talking, no bullshit kind of country that had maintained that sort of frontier spirit,” Greste said.

“It feels as though as if we’ve become incredibly bound up by rules and regulations. We’ve succumbed to the rhetoric around terrorism.”

Greste is in Canberra Monday to deliver the key note address at the Australian National University’s Bell School’s Information Wars conference on the back of the launch of his new book, The First Casualty.

In Egypt in 2013, Greste and his Al Jazeera English colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were arrested and charged with threatening national security.

A shambolic, Kafkaesque trial saw Greste spend 400 days in Egyptian prison before being released and deported back to Australia. The unknown foreign correspondent became a household name synonymous with press freedom in Australia.

“[The address] is about saying what happened to us in Egypt was a pretty extreme example of something happening the world over,” Greste said.

“Governments are using national security as an excuse to clamp down on civil liberties and freedom of speech in particular.”

“I absolutely recognise the need and desire for governments and people to be protected from terrorism and extremism, but the problem is one of the reasons we [Australia] are one of the most stable, peaceful, prosperous places on the planet is because we have an open liberal system with all the government checks and balances.”

Greste criticised “draconian” new anti-terrorism laws that allow police detention of 10-year-olds without charge for 14 days.

“The locking up of minors without charge; it’s just ridiculous. What we’re doing is playing directly into the hands of the extremists,” he said.

“The far greater threats are from things like nationalism and xenophobia, where we turn inwards and away from the rest of the world. I think that’s doing far more damage.”

We are in danger of moving our society towards that end of the spectrum and doing the job extremists want us to do

Peter Greste

His new book, part-autobiography, part-essay, looks at the attacks on journalists since the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York.

Interwoven with Greste’s arrest and trial in Egypt – a “bureaucratic hall of mirrors” he prefaces with an excerpt from Franz Kafka’s The Trial – it also ranges from his time starting as a correspondent for the BBC in Afghanistan in 1995, witnessing his colleague Kate Peyton shot dead by unknown attackers in Somalia in 2005 and reflections on Australia’s own legislative attacks on whistleblowers and the media.

In a chapter titled “The Fearful Country”, a play on The Lucky Country, Greste takes aim at Australia’s clamp down on whistleblowers and new mandatory metadata retention laws.

“I’m not suggesting we’re about to become Egypt any time soon … we are in danger of moving our society towards that end of the spectrum and doing the job extremists want us to do.”

He also reflects on the former US President Barack Obama’s administration using the Espionage Act to pursue whistleblowers and current US President Donald Trump’s open hatred of unfavourable media.

“I think there are echoes of that here but I don’t think we’re anywhere near the same point,” Greste said.

“I don’t claim to have all of the answers. I’m raising what I think are some fairly serious questions. I think it will contribute to public debate,” Greste said.

Reservations can be made for the Information Wars conference here.