Opinion

Peter Greste
Speaking for freedom

Online, in forums around the world, at the United Nations and beyond, the Australian government is quick to point out how important free speech is to a functioning democracy.

The Liberal Party’s own website proudly proclaims, “We believe in those most basic freedoms of parliamentary democracy – the freedom of thought, worship, speech and association.”

It is good to be reminded of that. Sometimes those values seem to disappear down the back of the ministerial sofa when it comes to the messy reality of governing.

Take the case of Australian documentary maker James Ricketson, who a Cambodian court last week sentenced to six years in prison for “espionage and collecting information that could jeopardise Cambodia’s national defence”.

By all accounts, Ricketson is no James Bond. He is a vocal, passionate man with a record of getting in people’s faces and speaking his mind when he sees things he disagrees with, including the Cambodian government. He has adopted street kids, supported local families and complained about the state of politics in Cambodia. Ricketson is someone who “rarely heeded advice and was a hopeless do-gooder who never knew when to quit”, as the South China Morning Post put it.

The 68-year-old was using a drone without permission to film an opposition rally in Phnom Penh in June last year when the police picked him up. Operating a drone without a permit is an administrative offence, to be sure, but at the most it deserves a fine – not charges of spying.

And the evidence used to convict Ricketson of espionage? Two letters, including one to Malcolm Turnbull, in which Ricketson urged him not to shake hands with Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen in public – Turnbull never replied – and an email to the former Cambodian opposition leader, Sam Rainsey, offering advice. The third exhibit was a dozen photos of riot police at a demonstration in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park.

In short, Ricketson’s trial and conviction as a “spy” seems to be a shocking attempt to not only lock up a minor irritant but send a clear and unequivocal message to any journalist or filmmaker who might be contemplating questioning the state of affairs in Cambodia.

We have seen this script before. My two Al Jazeera colleagues and I were arrested in Egypt on charges of “terrorism” after we covered rallies in support of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.

In Cambodia, as in Egypt, the government claims to be a democracy because they hold elections. Last July, Hun Sen extended his 33-year run in office by leading his party to a clean sweep of the 125 seats in parliament during Cambodia’s elections.

However, it is in Australia’s official response to Ricketson’s conviction that Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and my story deviates from his.

“[Ricketson] can expect to get all the consular and other support from the Australian government you would expect in these circumstances,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Indonesia, hours after Ricketson’s sentencing. “As usual in these types of events it is best to deal with these things calmly and directly and in a way which best assists a citizen.”

It is not clear what “other support” means in this context, but you would hope it includes some robust demands to respect those “most basic freedoms of parliamentary democracy” that grace the Liberal Party’s own website.

Contrast that with the more direct approach Julie Bishop took after our conviction in Egypt back in 2014, where we were sentenced to seven years in prison.

“We understand that Egypt has been through some very difficult times and there has been a great deal of turmoil … but this kind of verdict does nothing to support Egypt’s claim to be on a transition to democracy,” the then foreign minister told a news conference immediately following the verdict. “The Australian government urges the new government of Egypt to reflect on what message is being sent to the world about the situation in Egypt. Freedom of the press is fundamental to a democracy and we are deeply concerned that this verdict is part of a broader attempt to muzzle the media freedom that upholds democracies around the world.”

Those are fine, noble sentiments, and although we don’t know exactly what pushed Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to issue an executive order for my release, I have little doubt that the Australian government’s relatively robust response was a part of the mix.

And what of the Morrison government’s response to this week’s other big attack on media freedom in the region, this time in Myanmar?

On Monday, two Reuters journalists were convicted on charges of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act and sentenced to seven years’ jail – apparently now the international standard for bringing wayward reporters into line.

This time, the journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were arrested while they were investigating allegations of a massacre of 10 Rohingya men. The investigation was meticulous. The pair uncovered a set of two photographs of the men bound and kneeling with at least some of their armed captors clearly visible, and a third shocking image of the same men later dead in a ditch.

The journalists were able to identify a group of soldiers who are now also in prison for the murders.

While the reporters were making their inquiries, police called them to a meeting and gave them a set of documents supposedly related to the killings. Then they immediately arrested Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for handling the documents and charged them with violating the Official Secrets Act. Perhaps this sounds familiar.

The great irony is that the court sentenced the journalists to longer prison terms than those actually responsible for the killings.

Predictably, the conviction and sentence triggered a wave of protest around the world.

The United States ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said in a statement, “a free press is one of the foundations of democracy and human rights. Journalists must never be arrested for doing their jobs. We call on the Burmese authorities to free these reporters and cooperate fully with an independent investigation into the atrocities taking place in their country.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on the international community “to do whatever it can” to secure the release of the two Reuters journalists. The Netherlands, Britain, Norway, Denmark and the European Union all demanded that the journalists be freed.

And Australia? Canberra issued a statement expressing “disappointment” over the verdict.

Once again, it feels like a fatuously limp reaction to a flagrant violation of all those principles the Liberal Party apparently holds so dear.

There are clearly times when quiet diplomacy works better than shouty finger-wagging, but there are also times when that has to be elevated to unequivocal public condemnation.

But then, the government’s own commitment to freedom of speech is open to question. Not once but twice in the past few months, Home Affairs has failed to grant visas to people who posed no credible threat to the country, but who had powerful messages that were patently uncomfortable to the authorities.

Last weekend, I spoke to convicted whistleblower Chelsea Manning by video link from Los Angeles in front of an audience at the Sydney Opera House after Home Affairs failed to process her visa in time for her to come in person. It was a convenient way of shutting her out without ever having to formally reject the application until it no longer matters.

Manning spent seven years in prison – there’s that number again – of a 35-year sentence for violating the US Espionage Act after she leaked almost 750,000 military documents and diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks in 2010.

Manning was not calling for violent revolution in Australia or demanding radical transparency of every government document. Nor was she suggesting that people should break the law, but she was calling out what she sees as an increasingly oppressive surveillance state.

In June, the department pulled the same trick with reformed British jihadi Manwar Ali, who was due at the Dark Mofo festival in Hobart to talk about his experiences in Afghanistan. Disarmingly gentle and compassionate, Ali nonetheless has deep insights into the psychology of jihadism, which challenge the government’s insistence that militant Islamists are nothing more than a bunch of sociopaths.

In the end, I also spoke to him by video link in front of an audience, but the implied message from the department was just as clear – you are not welcome unless you are saying things that we agree with.

Even more troubling is the wider signal that those cases, and the government’s muted response to the most recent convictions in Cambodia and Myanmar, send to the wider world – that the liberal principles we so publicly proclaim as essential to democracy apply only when it is politically convenient.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 8, 2018 as "Speaking for freedom". Subscribe here.

Peter Greste
has spent 25 years as a foreign correspondent with Reuters, CNN, the BBC and Al Jazeera.