The First Casualty

Peter Greste
A review by Leila Toiviainen

HOBART: Australian Latvian journalist Peter Greste reported on Afghanistan, Somalia and Egypt for three decades for the BBC and Al Jazeera since 2011. He dedicates his memoir to 1,528 journalists killed while reporting about global events between 9/11 and July 2017 including his own BBC producer Kate Peyton in 2005, Daniel Pearl in 2002, and James Foley and Steven Sotloff a decade later.

The book details how the work of foreign correspondents changed after the 9/11 attacks. Observers of global events transformed into reluctant participants, and he speaks from experience: Greste was imprisoned in Egypt for 400 days until his release in February 2015, accused of multiple charges, including terrorism, along with two colleagues and a disparate group of foreign journalists and Egyptian students.The so-called “war on terror” triggered a global war waged against journalism by both governments and the terrorist groups they battle. Somalia offers an extreme example. Al Shabaab targeted anyone who did not share their extreme worldview, and the 2012 election of Hassan Sheik Mohamud did not deliver protections. Deaths of journalists fell, but the National Union of Somali Journalists credits that decline to self-censorship, “an undetectable, unnoticeable phenomenon.”  


Egypt released Greste and the other journalists after US President Barack Obama appealed to President el-Sisi. Regardless, Greste remains critical of reduced transparency from the Obama administration, pointing out that Obama invoked the 1917 Espionage Act “more times than all of his predecessors combined.” The government broadened its definition of terror and prosecuted public servants who spoke to journalists out of a sense of duty. Greste describes how the FBI used metadata to analyze 2009 communications about North Korea, how Pyongyang might lash out at attempts to punish its nuclear tests, between a Fox News journalist and a State Department analyst. “Was the information important to the public?” Greste writes. “Was it helpful for people to know about both North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the thinking of the State Department analysts? Was it right to have an open discussion about the ways in which the North Koreans might respond to any sanctions? The answer to those questions must surely be an overwhelming yes.”

The 9/11 attacks became a catalyst for tough government responses. For example, Australia’s Northern Territory’s one statute on terrorism prior to 9/11 expanded to more than 60 by July 2017. After six terrorist attacks in 2015, the French government declared a state of emergency lasting two years with raids and detentions. The UN Commission on Human Rights investigated and described the government restrictions as “excessive and disproportionate.”

Greste describes how his own reporting from Afghanistan changed with the war on terror. In 1995, he easily interviewed Taliban commanders for the BBC – the commanders then claimed to respect the BBC’s work and wanted to be taken seriously by Western media as aspiring leaders for their country. The murder of six Western journalists in Surobi, near Kabal, in 2001 became a turning point “when the Taliban came to see journalists as representatives of a world they had rejected.” With cultures at war, any prospect of dialogue had vanished.

A predominant theme for Greste is providing his global audience with a deeper understanding of the political complexities of distant places like Afghanistan or Egypt. Even while in prison in Egypt, he found stories to report, including interviews with senior representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and members of the April 6 Youth Movement, exploring links to Poland’s Solidarity movement.


Perhaps the most moving aspect of The First Casualty is Greste’s empathy and gratitude for fellow prisoners – families of Egyptian prisoners bringing food that was shared by all and prisoners making room for new arrivals while translating and sharing their stories. One prisoner, Alaa, grew up in a politically active family with a history of imprisonment. Trained as a software coder, he developed open-source programs that support freedom of expression and protect digital privacy and launched Arabic news aggregation websites. He assured Greste that their imprisonment was not personal, but “about intimidating every journalist working in Egypt, whether foreign or local.” Poverty meant that guards felt trapped, too. One guard, Abdulah, cried after Greste received a sentence of seven years. Another, Abdul-Saeed, was obviously “underpaid with holes in his shoes and smelling as if he cannot afford soap.” Greste credits his daily practice of Vipassana, an ancient form of Buddhist meditation from India, for his compassion and endurance. Likewise, his parents and two brothers traveled to Cairo for his hearings and set up support networks to win his freedom.

Greste urges the media against covering global conflicts by emphasizing a binary us-versus-them structure, though after 9/11, American journalists struggled to “see those behind the attacks as anything other than terrorists, mass murders and criminals.” In hindsight, he suggests “the media lost its moral and ethical compass, with disastrous consequences.” And he questions, though no one could ever know, if the world might be a safer place for journalists and citizens if the 9/11 attacks had been treated as “a crime of mass murder” instead of “an act of war” or if the media had engaged in active reporting, avoiding using “slogans and platitudes” from politicians: Articles “questioning the evidence or rationale for war were frequently buried, minimised or spiked altogether. The consequence was a sense of unity and purpose that felt noble and invigorating at the time, but meant that one of the most powerful elements of a functioning democracy – a vigorous argument about the right thing to do and unflinching questioning of the logic behind policies – got smothered in folds of patriotic red, white and blue.” 

Greste repeats a warning from George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” – that “lazy writing repeats political phrases that hide more than they reveal.” For Greste, the job of journalists is to reveal the hidden agendas of politicians and speak truth to power. He acknowledges that “trust in the media is at an all-time low,” but insists that the media and democracy cannot survive without this trust. A solution, he suggests, is that the media focus on news, not on comment “in the hunt of advertising revenue.” Likewise, journalists must demonstrate solidarity with one another in the pursuit of truth.

Leila Toiviainen grew up in Finland, trained as a nurse and midwife in England and received her PhD in philosophy from the University of Tasmania where she has worked for decades. For the past 25 years, she has been an editorial board member and contributor to the international Nursing Ethics journal and an active member of the Australian Association for Professional and Applied Ethics.


© 2018 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center at Yale