The Peter Greste case & notions of press freedom

By Dr Andrea Baker

The imprisonment of the Australian journalist Peter Greste in Egypt received news attention worldwide.

The court case was complex and multifaceted and riddled by unsubstantiated evidence, contradictory testimonies and procedural irregularities. As a result, it proved to be a difficult case to report on by three major media outlets such as Al Jazeera English, the BBC and the ABC.

Their news coverage was reduced to a Western versus Egyptian view, according to a new study, with less than half the reportage focused on the allegations against the three journalists

As a former ABC and BBC journalist, Greste, along with Egyptian-Canadian national, Mohamed Fahmy, and Egyptian, Baher Mohamed was working for Al Jazeera English when they were arrested by Egyptian authorities on 29 December 2013 for allegedly producing false news that was detrimental to the country’s transition to a democracy.

The trio were also accused of associating with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamist organisation, which had been blacklisted as a terrorist group since late December 2013.

The long trial concluded on 23 June 2014 and the journalists were sentenced to seven years (Greste and Fahmy) and 10years (Mohamed) in jail in Egypt.

This case marked the first time a Western journalist (such as Greste) had been imprisoned due to terrorism-related offences in Egypt, amid fears of a frenzied press freedom crackdown by military authorities afterthe Arab Spring of 2011.

Journalism academic Dr Andrea Baker from Monash University’s School of Media, Film and Journalism analysed the coverage of the trial by Al Jazeera English, the BBC and the ABC from the day of the arrest (29 December 2013) until a week after their final sentencing (30 June 2014).

“The networks were chosen because they were credible, public broadcasters, Greste has worked at all three; and it would be insightful to examine how the outlets reported on a court case of their employees, both past and present,” Dr Baker said.

Of the 294 articles analysed, 40 per cent of the stories came from Al Jazeera English, 38 per cent from the ABC; and 22 per cent from the BBC.

Proportionately, 70 per cent of the AJE stories focused on the innocent victims’ news narrative; 60 per cent of the ABC reports centred onGreste and his family, and60 per cent of the BBC coverage concentrating onpress freedom issues.

The findings also highlight how parochial the Australian media are, with 55 per cent of the ABC’s coverage focused on Peter Greste while the other two broadcasters focused on all three journalists.

Dr Baker said the findings suggested the media outlets had allowed a Western bias by focusing on innocent victim, family or freedom of the press angles while downplaying the Egyptian point of view.

The complete outcomes of this research is published in a monograph titled, The best things in life are free (The case of Peter Greste and notions of press freedom) for the upcoming Australian Journalism Monograph, 2015 Volume 15, Issue 1, (which is published by the Griffith Centre for Cultural Research, Griffith University, QLD, in association with the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia).

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