The UK’s prestigious Royal Television Society has presented its Judges’ Award to Al Jazeera’s Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy.
The award is given to recognise their outstanding contribution to the advancement of television journalism.
The trio were put in prison by the Egyptian authorities on 29 December 2013. Greste was only finally released earlier this month, while the ordeal for Mohamed and Fahmy continues – they were bailed last week pending retrial.
In presenting the award, the RTS said: “Tonight the RTS recognises the three ‘brothers,’ as Peter has called them. The released one and two on bail. Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed. Men who conducted themselves with enormous dignity and courage in the face of continued uncertainty about their fate. And we also recognise the commitment of the people who have campaigned and continue to campaign for the release of the two on bail.”
Accepting the award on behalf of all three, Greste thanked his fellow news professionals: “I’d be willing to bet this award that journalists have never united around a single common cause in the way that they have ours. I know how important it has been.
“For us in prison, of course we knew a bit about it. We were aware of some of the demonstrations; we’d heard about the zip-the-lips campaign and the letters. We knew the subject was consistently coming up in news conferences and interviews. And most surprisingly, some of our most vocal supporters were our direct rivals like CNN and the BBC, who’d normally rather eat their own babies than acknowledge the opposition!
“At the personal level, it was hugely empowering. It helped put rods of steel into our spines, because we came to understand that this was about something far bigger than the three of us alone. It was about the universal principles of freedom of expression, about the public’s right to know. And we knew you were right there with us.”
Photo credit – Richard Kendal/RTS
This award isn’t a surprise of course – we knew about it even before I was released from prison a few weeks ago. But my heart is still beating as though I just ran here from Cairo.
I speak for all three of us – Baher, Fahmy and I – when I tell you that we are truly honoured and humbled to receive this award. There are the usual thank yous of course – to the judges and our extraordinary families, who’ve been through hell and back. But there are also a few other points I’d like to make while I’ve got a platform.
Firstly, its about us. And by that I don’t simply mean we three. I mean the broader collective ”us” – and that includes everyone in media who turned out to support our cause.
As everyone in this room well knows, we journalists are a cranky, cantankerous lot. We are almost impossible to organize. We are by nature argumentative. We’d much rather compete than cooperate. And in fact about the only time we ever move in the same direction is when there is a bar in the room.
And yet, throughout our detention, the media have somehow abandoned the habits and instincts of a lifetime to line up behind us in an extraordinary way.
I’m not a student of media history, so I really can’t say it with any certainty, but I’d be willing to bet this award that journalists have never united around a single common cause in the way that they have ours. I know how important it has been.
For us in prison, of course we knew a bit about it. We were aware of some of the demonstrations; we’d heard about the zip-the-lips campaign and the letters. We knew the subject was consistently coming up in news conferences and interviews. And most surprisingly, some of our most vocal supporters were our direct rivals like CNN and the BBC who’d normally rather eat their own babies than acknowledge the opposition.
At the personal level, it was hugely empowering. It helped put rods of steel into our spines, because we came to understand that this was about something far bigger than the three of us alone. It was about the universal principles of freedom of expression, about the public’s right to know. And we knew you were right there with us.
But I also know that we really had no idea of just how extraordinarily broad and unified that sense of purpose turned out to be.
This matters not just because of the impact on us and our case. Right now, the very idea of a free press is increasingly under attack from groups who take the heads off journalists, to individuals who shoot up a magazine office in Paris or a free-speech conference in Denmark, to governments trying to limit the scope of our work with draconian legislation.
What you did was serve notice on anyone who’d attack those most fundamental principles that we are united. You made it clear that these are things we are prepared to fight for as one. And whatever happens from here, we must not lose that extraordinary singular voice.
The other point I’d like to talk about is just how honored Baher, Fahmy and I feel to be here amongst the most impressive professionals in the industry. These awards quite rightly celebrate those who’ve produced the most remarkable work of the year – the ones who’ve pushed the boundaries with their investigations, their creativity, their willingness to go to extremes to tell stories that matter.
For a long while I’ve felt puzzled about why we should be here, amongst such incredible people. After all, the plain fact is that in Cairo, we were doing nothing particularly radical or extraordinary. Our work was, I’d have to admit, pretty pedestrian. But that was because given the environment at the time, we knew we needed to play it safe. We quite deliberately avoided the boundaries.
But I’ve come to realize that amongst the gongs for genius, our community also needs to celebrate the banal. I don’t mean to be self-depreciating here. Quite the opposite. Remember – we are the media – the means by which information flows. When we are doing our jobs properly and freely, we allow a healthy society to talk to itself. The conversations are not always particularly dignified or edifying and at times they aren’t even especially rational. But in the same way that a family works out its differences and holds itself together by talking and arguing and getting to know one another, so the media helps keep our society from falling apart.
Now, I know a lot of people would argue that social media has taken over that role, but we’ve learned rather tragically that social media tends to create silos. Small fringe groups retreat from the center, talking only amongst themselves, becoming ever more radical as they become more isolated. So if any part of the community is cut off… if we are denied the opportunity to include everyone in those often rather ordinary stories and conversations… if we can’t question and challenge and involve everyone, I think we run the very serious risk of our societies becoming not more unified but more fragmented.
So, although this might seem rather counter-intuitive, I’d like to accept this award not only on behalf of Baher and Fahmy who’ve stood up and defended the principles of press freedom with courage and determination, but also the 99 percent of us who didn’t come up here tonight. Because that routine and generally unrecognized work that we all do is also worth celebrating and fighting for.