Award-winning journalist and foreign correspondent Peter Greste received an Honorary Doctorate from Griffith University for his service to journalism at the Queensland Conservatorium tonight (December 4) before presenting the annual Griffith Lecture following his doctorate conferral.
Mr Greste’s arrest with Al Jazeera colleagues, Mohamed Fahmy and Bhaer Mohamed, by Egyptian authorities on false terrorism charges sparked international outrage in 2013.
During his 400-day detention in an Egyptian prison he started studying international relations with Griffith University’s School of Government and International Relations.
“It’s a great honour to receive this award. I take it as a mark of recognition, not just for what we went through but also for what it represents…for those 400 days of prison,’’ he said.
Mr Greste, who turned 50 this week, has reported on political events all over the world.
As a correspondent, between 1991 and 1995, he reported from many locations including London, Bosnia and South Africa where he worked with Reuters, CNN, WTN and the BBC.
Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, he returned to Afghanistan to cover the war there. In 2011, he received a prestigious Peabody Award for his BBC documentary Somalia: Land of Anarchy. In December 2013, his employer Al Jazeera sent him from his base in Nairobi to Cairo to cover the bureau for three weeks during which he was arrested.
In June 2014, after more than six months in Cairo’s infamous Tora Prison, a court found Mr Greste and his colleagues guilty and sentenced them to seven years imprisonment.
A month later, Griffith University’s part in his remarkable journey began when his family broached the possibility of him studying a Master’s degree by distance.
He soon enrolled in a Graduate Certificate in International Relations. His lecturer Dr Dan Halvorson and a group of students compiled a 13 kg box of readings and sent it to the Australian Embassy who delivered it to Mr Greste in prison. He applied himself with diligence, submitting his assignments from prison written in pencil on paper.
“I’m really honoured to receive the honorary doctorate and recognition from the people I respect at Griffith.”
“We fought hard for our own freedom, but I think it’s important that people also see the bigger picture of due process and freedom of speech. I’m being recognised more for the things we came to represent, than anything that I’ve done.”
As well as the honourary doctorate, Mr Greste has also been made an Adjunct Professor in the Griffith Business School.
Given all he and his colleagues have been through, his international relations study is very important to him.
“Studying was both easy and difficult,’’ he said.
“The easy part was the decision to study. Once convicted and sentenced to seven years, what I wanted to do was to use the time productively.
“I’ve always wanted to study International Relations, and I was never able to complain about lack of time in prison,” he joked.
“Then I started work on the assignments on paper and pencil, and as visits from the embassy were weekly, I would write a letter to my lecturer Dan Halvorson and then wait another week for the reply. It was an arduous process but we managed.”
Since his release from prison in February he has paused his study but hopes to resume in the near future.
He said presenting the Griffith Lecture on December 4 was a way of validating what he and his colleagues went through retrospectively.
“It’s a way of applying meaning to what we went through. Those 400 days weren’t wasted.
“I learned a lot about myself in prison but that time has also given me the credibility to talk about those issues around press freedom. I feel a responsibility to talk about these issues, partly because so many of my friends, so many journalists, fought so hard for me, that’s why people backed us.
“Also from my own perspective, it means it was time that’s become valuable. If I simply walked out of prison, and returned to my old life, it would feel as though my time there had vanished.
“I’m still a journalist at heart, I can’t go back to my old job in Africa as a journalist but I’d like to continue in some way.”
While his colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were pardoned by the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in September, Mr Greste still carries a criminal conviction and an outstanding prison sentence.
His legal team is looking at all options including appealing and the possibility of a presidential pardon.