Peter Greste risked his life to tell the world the truth. That cannot be a crime.

Peter Greste.

Having spent three years living and working as a journalist in the Middle East, I’ve witnessed countless horrible moments in people’s lives.

However, filming last night in a suburban Brisbane lounge room was one of the saddest experiences I’ve ever had as a reporter.

Australian journalist Peter Greste and his two Egyptian colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were arrested in Cairo in December 2013 and accused of spreading false news and supporting the now banned Islamist group the Muslim brotherhood.

The three employees of Al Jazeera English have spent the last six months in prison, sharing a jailed a 4m cell that is locked down for 23 hours a day, with only a small window for light.

Every few weeks they have been trotted out to appear at a trial widely condemned as farcical and absurd. ‘Evidence’ included personal photographs, Greste’s  reports from other networks and countries, and even  a music  clip from Australian band Goyte.  To put it simply – it would be laughable if it weren’t so serious.

Peter Greste.

Peter’s younger brothers Andrew and Mike have taken turns living out of a suitcase in Cairo, visiting their brother in prison and providing what support they can.

Their parents, Lois and Juris have had to suddenly turn into global PR merchants- holding countless press conferences, making hundreds of calls and sending thousands of emails campaigning for Peter’s release.

Last week, a few days before a verdict in the case was due, Lois and Peter Greste invited me and Foreign Correspondent’s cameraman Dave Martin up to their family farm in the Lockyer Valley, just outside of Brisbane.

Surrounded by gumtrees and creeks, with no electricity and no phone reception – it was a place to escape as they anxiously counted down the hours until they learnt of their son’s fate.

“This is the house we built when the boys were 10, 13 and 16,” recalled Lois fondly. “It was good times,” laughed Juris. “Working our guts out in the height of summer and then going skinny dipping in the creek!”

They were in high spirits. The release a few days earlier of Al Jazeera Arabic journalist Abdullah Al Shamy gave them real hope that Peter would be next. Plans to go to Qatar, where Al Jazeera is based, were discussed – ‘I don’t want to hug him in front of lots of TV cameras,” mused Lois. Whilst Juris confided that they had gone shopping for champagne the day before, “The first thing Peter will want to do is go Kite-surfing,” he told me grinning.

Lois and Juris Greste react to the news that their son was given a seven-year jail sentence.

A few nights later I was back with the Greste’s at their Brisbane home. The passports were on the bench, the champagne cold in the fridge. Prime Minister Abbott’s news that morning that he had spoken with the new Egyptian President Sisi to lobby for Peter’s release added to their hopes.


We sat down and waited for the verdict over twitter. An hour or two passed and then suddenly Lois and Peter’s world came crashing down. “Seven years for Peter Greste,” Lois read aloud slowly in disbelief. “My god! My god!” Juris jumped to his feet, “that’s crazy!” Their daughters-in law ran upstairs to support and hug Lois who looked on the verge of collapse.

The Grestes had all but convinced themselves this would be Peter’s last day in jail. The result was incomprehensible. Cameraman Dave Martin and I hugged a weeping Juris and shed a few tears ourselves. We then melted away into the night to let this amazingly brave and wonderful family try and process this horrible news.

Today, my sadness has turned to anger.

The reason I became a journalist was to try and make a difference in the world. Because I believe that going and telling the stories of people less fortunate than us is important. That exposing government crimes, atrocities and human rights abuses, matters.

Peter Greste with his parents on holiday last year.

That somehow, when you watch a story in your living room in Australia, all those risks I took were worth it because maybe, just maybe… it will make you care.

And that’s the same reason Peter Greste became a journalist.

He has spent years working in Africa, risking his life in order to tell the world what’s going on.

In 2005, whilst working for the BBC, Peter’s close friend and colleague Kate Peyton was shot in the streets of the Somali capital Mogadishu as Peter stood next to her.

He was with Kate when she died hours later in hospital and defied BBC orders to leave the country, insisting he stay and making sure her body got home safely.

Egyptian authorities have chosen to make an example out of this honourable award-winning reporter and his colleagues.

The Al Jazeera verdict represents a harsh warning to all journalists in Egypt. Watch what you say – or you too could end up in Tora Prison

Tune into Foreign Correspondent tonight at 8.00pm on ABC 1 for a special behind-the-scenes report on the Greste family and their son Peter.

Click through our gallery of MM staffers calling for Egypt to #FreeAJStaff – and tweet your own using the hashtags #FreeAJStaff, #PeterGreste or #AJTrial.

If you’d like to take action, Peter’s family have said he would welcome messages of support to [email protected]  You can also visit Amnesty International here to call on Egyptian authorities to release Peter Greste and his Al Jazeera colleagues. (Or if you’re suspicious of online activism, see this post on the issue.)

Sophie McNeill.

Sophie McNeill is reporter/producer with ABC TV’s Foreign Correspondent. She has reported from Afghanistan, Gaza, Pakistan, Syria, Israel and Iraq. Sophie is a mad Fremantle Dockers fan and mum to two young boys.  You can follow her on twitter @Sophiemcneill and Instagram here.