Peter Greste's Gandhi Oration: When media becomes a weapon in war

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Recalling Gandhi’s commitment to the truth, Peter Greste calls for journalists to strengthen their role as gatekeepers of democracy

Peace, security and dignity can only be guaranteed when we respect the human rights of all. This critical notion underpinned Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance, and is also a fitting articulation of the basis of Peter Greste’s address at this year’s Gandhi Oration.

Peter Greste.Indian Link

Since the inaugural event in 2012, the Gandhi Oration is delivered each year by a person whose work exemplifies the ideals and values of the leader of the Indian independence movement, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Greste is in illustrious company, joining Indigenous leader Prof. Patrick Dodson, former High Court judge and human rights campaigner Michael Kirby, Australian writer Thomas Keneally and last year’s speaker, anti-apartheid activist and Gandhi’s granddaughter, Ela Gandhi.

An award-winning Australian journalist, Peter Greste was arrested in December 2013, along with two colleagues from Al Jazeera, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed, on fabricated terrorism charges, following the ousting of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Greste spent more than a year in a Cairo jail before his release in February 2015. He has since crusaded for press freedom and was awarded the 2015 Australian Human Rights Commission Medal.

Marking Martyr’s Day, the anniversary of the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi in 1948, the choice of Peter Greste for this year’s Gandhi Oration was more than fitting. The incredibly humble foreign correspondent was introduced by Indian High Commissioner Navdeep Suri. What made Mr Suri’s remarks particularly pertinent was that his time as India’s Ambassador to Egypt coincided with Greste’s incarceration. Mr Suri shared beautiful insights into the Gandhian mindset of Peter Greste and suggested that he shared with Gandhi a unique sense of moral justice.

Titled ‘Journalism in the Age of Terror’, Greste’s Gandhi Oration explored how governments and extremists are using the media as a weapon to further their own agendas, damaging global democracy in the process, and how the media itself is allowing this exploitation to occur.

With a commanding but understated presence, Greste spoke to the capacity audience about how the so-called War on Terror is in fact a war over competing world views where the need to protect the right to criticise remains of utmost importance.

Peter Greste.Indian Link

He pointed to the egregious attacks on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo as an example of the contested space of free speech and liberal ideology. Where we in the West viewed this as an attack on critical thought, several of Greste’s cellmates, he explained, thought that while the attack was extreme, it was justified because the magazine’s transgression, insulting Islam, was in their minds a step too far.

“The battlefield extends to the place where ideas themselves are prosecuted – in other words, the media,” Greste said.

Recalling the words of Gandhi, who himself was a journalist and proprietor of several newspapers in India, Greste stressed the power of the media as a means of supporting democracy, but also as a destructive force.

Greste analysed several incidents to highlight the ways in which media is being used as a weapon by both sides of the conflict.

The United States bombing of Al Jazeera’s bureau in Kabul in 2001 was in an effort to shutdown Arabic media access to sources in the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Greste suggested.

On the other side, Greste tendered that groups such as the Taliban and now Islamic State are using new media as a method of circulating videos of beheadings of captured journalists, executions of aid workers, and acts of martyrdom in order to recruit and terrorise.

“Of course propaganda and censorship are as old as war itself, but that has generally been a struggle to control the story rather than targeting the storyteller,” Greste said.

With Western governments considering themselves increasingly under threat, attempts are being made to control public opinion through limiting the means of public discourse. ‘Terrorism’ is being used as a by-word to control and silence the media.

Examining three new Australian laws – section 35P of the ASIO Act; the Foreign Fighters Bill; and the Data Retention Bill – Greste outlined how “each in their own way has a corrosive effect on the ability of journalists to do the job that basic democratic theory demands of us”. Through the imposition of gaol sentences for reporting security operations, unclear terminology that suppresses legitimate media advocacy, and the ability for government agencies to gain access to confidential sources through metadata tracing, these laws will severely impact on media freedom, yet “the media have become increasingly slack in challenging and questioning governments, and in defending the freedom of the press,” Greste argued.

Peter Greste.Indian Link

“Even for Gandhi, the most fundamental right – the one that underpins all others – was the freedom of speech; the right to self-expression,” Greste said.

Pointing to the Paris terror attacks of December last year as an example, Greste highlighted how the media has followed the lead of politicians in using the language of war to discuss events, rather than measured expressions. This, Greste argued, limits the capacity of the public to give reasoned thought to the wider, highly complex situation.

“Mahatma Gandhi, with his commitment to journalistic truth, would have demanded to know the detail of what is being done in his name,” Greste said.

Journalists have a responsibility to challenge the legal dictates being imposed by governments across the globe and must be wary of playing into the hands of radicals. They must continue to be committed to the truth and a desire to know the facts at the heart of a matter.

“By adopting the language and the posture of war, we are not only failing to tackle the causes of the violence – we are feeding it,” he said.

Detailing the support he and his colleagues received during their time in gaol, Greste said, “Vast support emerged because everyone came to understand that we had always remained true to our highest ethical standards, not just in our reporting of Egypt, but throughout our careers.” He urged journalists to remain genuinely independent and committed to being fiercely sceptical of our politicians.

Just as Gandhi acutely understood the role and power of the media, so too does Greste. Journalists must preserve their position as the gatekeepers of democracy, to ensure freedom of speech is upheld, because, as Greste said, “Freedom of speech is the right that underpins and protects all others.”