For the parents of an Australian journalist imprisoned in Egypt, the past 100 days have been interminable. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Greste family’s stoic wait for news

Credit: Lois and Juris Greste front the media in Brisbane.

In this story

For a swollen moment in 2005, Peter Greste’s parents thought he was dead. Since he began as a foreign correspondent for the BBC – covering the Middle East, Africa and South America – Juris and Lois kept a sort of vigil over their son. Each morning they’d tune into the BBC, desperate to not hear something. They didn’t want to hear that their son had been killed. 

They never told him this, never tried to counsel him away from the battlefields. When as a young man Peter read One Crowded Hour – the biography of combat cameraman Neil Davis – he discovered his restless, fizzing purpose: he would be a foreign correspondent. He left his regional posts as a young journalist and went banging on the door of the BBC. 

His parents learnt to live with the anxiety, as their son sourced interviews among artillery shells. They would never interfere with his passion. But on a February morning in 2005 they had reason to doubt their support. They had turned on the radio to hear that a BBC journalist had been shot and killed in Somalia. They knew Peter had just arrived there, knew also that there were very few BBC staff in the country. Here was their crowded hour, one of mental nausea. 

The murdered journalist was Kate Peyton, Peter’s producer. She was 39. They were leaving a hotel, where they had conducted interviews, when a sniper sent a bullet into Peyton’s back. Peter saw it. In an email she sent him just weeks before, Peyton had said she thought the assignment would be a “great trip”. Peter was certain that the story was important – the Horn of Africa was becoming increasingly vital in the war on terror.

1 . Growing up

Peter Greste has been in Egypt’s Tora Prison for 99 days when I visit his parents in their Brisbane home. They’re exhausted. It’s all over Lois’s face and expressed in her languid movements – the sleeplessness, the anxiety, the stress of delicately circumscribed interviews with media. Despite this, she has prepared food for me before my arrival – plates of grapes, cheese, olives. “You must be hungry,” she tells me. She makes us tea.

Last October, Lois and Juris moved into this apartment, cheerfully decorated with rugs and wall hangings. Yesterday they bought four pots of pink flowers to lift their mood. On one wall is a framed black-and-white photo of two women, taken by Peter in Africa. “He has learnt to do it all,” Juris says, looking at it. “Photography, reporting, producing, camera-work. Yes, I’m a very proud father.”

Juris is blunt, articulate and cerebral, possessed of an impressive vitality for a man approaching 80. A Latvian refugee and celebrated architect, he now applies a lifetime of curiosity and problem-solving to the incarceration of his son. When I arrive, Lois tells me Juris has gone for a ride on his bike. He returns not long after. “What is magnifying the load for me is that every moment this continues I feel that I almost can’t afford to go for a bike ride, because I feel that all my physical, mental and emotional energies need to be directed to this cause. But I need it and enjoy it, to get the blood flowing.”

Lois is handsome and gentle, with short grey hair and sad eyes. Back during the Victorian gold rush, Lois’s ancestors – German Protestants – fled religious persecution to the garden state. It’s where she grew up, going on long camping trips around the state.

If you unfurl their lineage, you see the Grestes are preceded – and informed by – centuries of European tumult. It is precisely the sort of grand geopolitical agitations – and the individual stories that comprise them – that their son wanted to record as a foreign correspondent. It’s not hard to detect similarities between father and son. “Latvians have been the driftwood of global political storms. My own ancestors in almost every generation have suffered. In my own time, World War II brought us here. Latvians, culturally, have always had to keep their antennae out beyond their borders.”

When they were boys, Peter and his brothers, Mike and Andrew, went camping a lot with their parents. They never did resorts –they’d always go out to the bush, learning to set up their own tents and cook over a fire. Sometimes Juris and Lois would pull the boys out of school a week before the holidays started, believing an equally useful education was to be had in the bush. “It wasn’t out of meanness, or lack of money. They were the holidays we enjoyed,” Juris says.

When they lived in Sydney they had their own boat and went sailing. The boys all loved it. “If you’re not practical or dexterous enough, then you can’t sail.”

The boys’ passions were encouraged by parents who believed they should be exposed to books and mud; who wanted them to avidly inquire about the wider world, but also learn how to use their hands. Juris and Lois produced a farmer, a policeman and a foreign correspondent.

Having a child condemned indefinitely to a squalid cell comes with its own appreciable horror, but for the Grestes that horror has been compounded by the caprices of an autocracy and the secret peculiarities of international diplomacy.

The Grestes are experiencing heartbreak, but to fully and publicly express that heartbreak might jeopardise the trial now determining their son’s fate. They must stifle their screams, sublimating their love for Peter into an uneasy deference to tyrants and diplomats. Most parents get to at least bellow wildly about an injustice visited upon their child, and it’s unusual and perverse for that catharsis to be smudged out. But in practice, some things are larger than parental love.

Juris and Lois’s love for Peter has taken many new and unfamiliar forms. They have reluctantly accepted their relative inefficacy, handing themselves over to the Australian embassy in Egypt. They have enmeshed themselves with the global fraternity of journalists now determined to free Peter and his colleagues. They have also become ardent users of Twitter – tutored by Mike and Andrew – which they tell me is probably the greatest source of news to them about a trial cloaked in whim and secrecy. “There’s so much on Twitter,” Lois says.

Social media has brought them a modicum of knowledge, and they realise that’s probably more than Peter has. “He isn’t allowed many reading materials,” Lois says. “They banned everything for the first two months. Now a few things are allowed through.”

2 . 'False news'

Peter Greste has quite probably become a grain between two giant millstones – Egypt and Qatar, the home of his employer Al Jazeera. It is tempting to say that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but Greste would disagree. He was exactly where he should have been, bearing witness to a country violently competing with itself to fill the vacuum left by deposed president Hosni Mubarak.

That vacuum was initially filled in 2012 – through popular ballot – by Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected leader in Egypt’s history. He ran as the chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood are, in essence, medievalists and were once home to the spiritual godfather of al-Qaeda, Sayyid Qutb. With Morsi’s election, Egypt was in the strange position of selling its democratic revival to the West via the popular election of a leader likely contemptuous of Western liberal values.

It lasted a year. Morsi attempted to grant himself feudal powers, formally recognised as transcending the law. He revoked the idea, but it was too late and the military deposed him. The Muslim Brotherhood was then designated a terror organisation, and the military practised its own terror by shooting supporters dead in the streets.

Greste’s alleged crime is of broadcasting “false news” – in other words, to have had the temerity to record these deadly convulsions, variously played out in the name of either God or democracy, or both. On December 29, Greste and his two Al Jazeera colleagues, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, were arrested in their hotel room after filing stories. The Egyptian government charged that, in addition to broadcasting misleading information, they were also supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. 

In late March, Prime Minister Tony Abbott finally picked up the phone and asked stand-in Egyptian President Adly Mansour for a quick and happy resolution. It followed public demands by the Labor deputy and Greens leaders that Abbott involve himself more. Abbott said that he told Mansour that: “[Greste] wasn’t taking sides. He was simply doing his job and it is the job of a free media to report the facts as they find them and that is what he was doing.” Around this time, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop appealed to her Egyptian counterpart.

Greste’s parents are proud and slightly comforted by his resourcefulness. The prisoners are allowed outside their cell for just one hour, six days a week. “Peter’s life was equally divided between writing, thinking, enjoying the outdoors, enjoying music – and now he has just one hour a day in an external box. You have to be pretty disciplined to maintain your sanity.”

With his cellmates he made a sign out of food labels that was pasted onto the wall. It read “Freedom Now” and was swiftly torn down. “So what does he do instead?” Lois says. “He makes a foil sun, with rays going out that was a metre wide. And the sun comes into the cell at a certain angle at a certain time of day and it hits the mural and lights up the room.”

Lois walks me outside, showing me the shrubs and trees for which she hasn’t yet figured out the names. “I’m not sure what these ones are,” she says. “I’ll have to wait until they bloom.” She is a woman used to waiting.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 12, 2014 as "Peter Greste’s long wait".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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