“Did you ever hear about Alan Johnston?” asks journalist Peter Greste. The name rings a bell, I say.
“Alan was a BBC reporter who was kidnapped and held in Gaza Strip,” he says. “He’s a good friend but whenever I hear his voice, I immediately think of Gaza. He will forever be the guy who was detained in Gaza. I know that’s probably true for me too. I’ll always be the bloke the Egyptians locked up for 400 days.”
Greste was arrested in Egypt in 2013 along with two Al Jazeera colleagues for allegedly reporting news that was “damaging to national security”. He’d ruffled plenty of feathers in his years as a foreign correspondent but wasn’t doing hard-hitting reporting at the time.
“As a journalist you want to jab the authorities in the eye with something that upsets them, some really good journalism,” he said in a Walkley Foundation conversation with Egyptian journalist Lina Attalah last year. “But this was … as vanilla as you could get.”
Greste was sentenced to seven years in jail. Even then, he did not anticipate he’d become a high-profile press freedom spokesperson for the rest of his days. Yet two-and-a-half years after his deportation to Australia in 2015, that’s what he is, TEDx talks and all.
“It’s not a good thing or a bad thing it’s just a thing,” he says. “Even if it is sometimes uncomfortable, it’s part of who I am now.” Though he baulks at the word activist. “Being an activist is not something that sits naturally with me. I’m a reporter, I’m not an activist.”
In a conversation with Mark Colvin at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Greste said: “I wouldn’t wish what I went through on my worst enemy”. Yet he is not driven by a desire for revenge but a sense of responsibility.
“People came to see me as a symbol of press freedom. They see me with more credibility than I might otherwise have had, so that’s why I feel a certain kind of responsibility.”
In jail, the campaign became “far bigger than any of us ever imagined” he says. “We struggled to work out what strategy was most likely to get us out of prison but was also ethically sound. We decided we had to frame it as a fight between the government and press freedom rather than a defence of the particulars of our own work.”
The next iteration of that fight is a book. “It’s my first – and probably my last,” he laughs. “For a bloke whose attention span has never been more than 2.5 minutes, it’s quite a challenge.”
Here, too, Greste zoomed out to focus on the broader picture. “[My publisher] originally wanted a prison memoir and I resisted that,” he says. “I always felt if it was just about our story it would be relatively meaningless. There are people who are far better writers and who have been through far more than we did.
“I’ve always felt journalism is worthwhile because it leads you to some deeper understanding about the world. What happened to us is an egregious example of what happens when governments use national security as an excuse to clamp down on press freedom.”
In Egypt’s eyes, Greste remains a convicted terrorist. Which means that, at least for now, his career as a correspondent is not viable. If it were, he’d be back overseas. “I’ve found it hard to give that life up,” he says.
“I miss it terribly. I spent 25 years of my life as a correspondent … having that license to indulge my curiosity at the highest level. It’s an exciting, liberating, intoxicating way to be but at the moment, it’s not realistic.”