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Peter Greste case shines light on need for press freedom

I am a cotton and grain farmer from Wee Waa in north-western NSW who'd like to share with you the impact my brother Peter Greste's arrest has had on our family. It's taken me to places a long way from home and away from the introverted lifestyle I normally lead. I have actually skipped out of a cotton conference in Queensland to be here, but obviously at the moment Peter's case has taken a very high priority in my life; I know he is innocent.

Peter was arrested on December 27 last year and formally charged at the end of January. After 13 court sessions where my brother Mike and I were in attendance, on June 23 he was sentenced to seven years in prison. During this six-month period of court sessions, he was held in a small cell with his two other colleagues for 23 hours a day, and for quite a few months without reading and writing material of any sort.

As a family, we were not prepared for such a severe sentence. He has now decided to appeal the court's decision. Peter continues to remain mentally and physically strong and has been conscious to look after himself. An Egyptian prison is not a place where you want to get crook. My brother and I have been visiting him regularly on a weekly basis since the middle of February. Family visits, along with consular visits, are his only other source of contact with the outside world. The No.1 priority for him has been to ensure this ordeal does not break him mentally, and to rely on those of us outside to fight for him.

As a family, we have felt our most effective role in all of this has been to try to keep his case in the media to maintain public pressure for his release. We didn't want to be months into his incarceration and the case be forgotten. We are not diplomats or politicians and have therefore left this sometimes intangible art of cross-cultural diplomacy to the leaders and diplomats of our respective governments. I would like to thank both the Australian government and the Latvian government (as Peter is also a Latvian citizen) for their work in this area. It has been an effort conducted privately and behind the scenes and quite often gone unnoticed.

Through his professional career, the idea of a constitutionally enshrined press freedom was an abstract; an idealised principle that he understood to be a fundamental legal cornerstone of both his trade and the wider concept of a free and open society. After eight months in an Egyptian prison, he now knows this attitude to be dangerously naive and press freedom is a fragile thing, with deeply personal consequences. It is also a painfully tangible thing to the families of journalists who are arrested, kidnapped and killed every year.  While in Egypt, Peter wasn't doing anything particularly controversial. He was working as any responsible journalist would, covering a complex and somewhat messy political situation "with all the accuracy and fairness that our imperfect trade demands", he has said. Peter believes it isn't enough to simply talk about press freedom; it must be defended loudly and vigorously in courts in the street and in the media.

Throughout the course of the trial, investigators have searched their work for the slightest error of fact, slip of judgment, or example of bias that might support their claim that they were supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. I know that all three of them are very proud that investigators have found nothing. 

Seeing him locked in the defendants' cage dressed in white during each court session, and knowing the conditions inside the prison, has been difficult. Instead I think about him as my big brother and focus on his dignity and strength. These character traits have been inspiring to me and something I have tried to emulate through this continuing ordeal. His behaviour also demonstrates Peter's remarkable spirit and ability to adapt to adverse situations and conditions. He said to me during a prison visit if he was told he would have to endure seven months in a confined cell with one hour out a day, extended periods without books or reading and writing material, he would not have thought it humanly possible for him to cope. He has done so with dignity and humility. Obviously he has gone through some dark patches. Thankfully these have not been prolonged.

My brother Mike has spent over two months in Cairo this year, I have spent nearly three months and our parents, Juris and Lois, who are in their late 70s and retired, are going into their second month. We created a website at to provide information about Peter's case and our family has had a member in Cairo supporting Peter since the middle of February. Peter has not sought the limelight. But may his story, his truth, showcase his ability to let free speech shine. 

This is an edited version of the speech Andrew Greste gave to the Australian Human Rights Commission's Free Speech 2014 Symposium on Thursday.