Peter Greste confronted over Assange opinion piece


Journalist Peter Greste labelled the “lack of fair trial” for Julian Assange a “travesty” after an audience member at a panel on journalistic freedom confronted him about his recent opinion piece on Assange.

When the panel, chaired by Greste, allowed audience members to ask questions, he was asked to acknowledge the value of Assange’s whistleblowing work.

The opinion piece, published in the Sydney Morning Herald, argues that Assange is “not a journalist”, claiming: “Journalism demands more than simply acquiring confidential information and releasing it unfiltered onto the internet for punters to sort through. It comes with responsibility.”

Responding to the question, Greste recognised the necessity of a fair trial for Assange, saying the case needed to be “carefully inspected”.

Steve Coll, an American journalist on the panel, referred to Assange in earlier discussion when explaining the hostility fostered by Donald Trump’s anti-press “rhetoric environment”, noting the need for whistleblowing. Coll was also questioned by two audience members about his stance on Assange.  He responded to the first saying Assange’s trial endangered press freedom, and declined answering the second question.

The panel, titled “My Crime is Journalism” and held at the Sydney Opera House on September 1 as part of the Antidote Festival, focussed on the issue of criminalising journalism and free speech.

Maria Ressa, a Filipino journalist and founder of the news site Rappler, spoke about the Filipino government’s “weaponisation of the law” against journalists like her, using a “veneer of due process” by filing false cases of tax evasion and cyber libel against Rappler to discourage their investigations.

Ressa, a vocal critic of Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte, has been charged with 11 separate offences and arrested twice over her career. She addressed the role that social media plays in activist journalism, saying that “fake news” threatens democracy: “If you cannot agree on the facts, you cannot have democracy.”

Also on the panel was Egyptian journalist Lina Attalah, the co-founder and chief editor of Mada Masr, an independent online newspaper published in English and Arabic.

Despite seeing growing hostility towards journalists, Attalah finds solace in her reporting, calling journalism her “main way of navigating home”.

Since the 2013 coup d’état, Egyptian press has faced increasing pressure to reflect the government’s agenda.  Attalah discussed an investigative piece published in Mada Masr that revealed how the death of former president, Mohamed Morsi, was covered almost identically across most major Egyptian news outlets, using text sent via WhatsApp by a government representative that briefly covered the event, dismissing Morsi’s presidency due to his opposition to the current government.

She said she feels a “certain kind of privilege” to be able to hold the government accountable with her reporting.

Irina Borogan, Russian journalist and author, also on the panel, relayed her experiences of reporting under an authoritarian state, including being interrogated by the FSB (Russia’s secret service) after her coverage of the Moscow theatre hostage crisis in 2002 revealed the involvement of security forces in the deaths of the hostages.

She discussed the importance of access to archives in journalism, a process she says has become more difficult in recent times: “National security is a big deal in Russia.”

Borogan also spoke about her book, The New Nobility (2010), which she published in America to circumvent Russian security laws. The book examines the legacy of the KGB and Russia’s national security. Once it achieved American success, it became a Russian bestseller.

Coll, the final panellist, spoke about the vilification of the press in American politics. Although the United States ranks higher on the RSF Press Freedom Index (at 48) than the Philippines (134), Russia (149), and Egypt (163), Coll identified that President Donald Trump’s anti-press vitriol has led to challenges for journalists to maintain society’s trust.

He described journalism as a “necessary component of a just society”, citing the recent examples of the #MeToo movement and the Royal Commission into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church as proof of a “Renaissance of meaningful investigative journalism” with the capacity to create significant change.

He concluded that “history does not move in a straight line” when making progress on freedom of the press, but that professional, independent journalism was still of utmost importance to our global society.

Nicola is a first year student, studying her Bachelor of Arts (Media and Communications). She did this report during the unit meco1003: Principles of Media Writing.