Peter Greste, one of three journalists arrested in Egypt while working for Al Jazeera, is speaking out about his detention in letters from jail, describing his commitment to fighting what he called an "attack on freedom" by the country's government.
Greste was arrested at Al Jazeera's Cairo bureau late December along with three other journalists. The Ministry of the Interior accused them of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood. One of Greste's colleagues was later released, while Egyptian authorities extended the detention of Greste, who is Australian, Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian cameraman Baher Mohamed for another 15 days.
Greste wrote in letters to his parents— which were reportedly smuggled out of jail and published Saturday — that he was not allowed to leave his cell in Cairo's Tora Prison for the previous ten days. He described the conditions in which his colleagues are being held:
"Fahmy and Baher have been accused of being MB members, so they are being held in the far more draconian 'Scorpion prison' built for convicted terrorists. Fahmy has been denied the hospital treatment he badly needs for a shoulder injury he sustained shortly before our arrest. Both men spend 24 hours a day in their mosquito-infested cells, sleeping on the floor with no books or writing materials to break the soul-destroying tedium."
The journalists were arrested on suspicion of "broadcasting false news," according to a statement from the interior ministry. Egyptian authorities said that they possessed materials supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which, months after the overthrow of former president Mohammed Morsi, was recently labeled a "terrorist organization" by Egypt's current government.
In his letter, Greste wrote that he was aware of the risk he took by speaking to opposition voices. The decision however had been necessary, he wrote, in order to provide balanced reporting. "How do you accurately and fairly report on Egypt's ongoing political struggle without talking to everyone involved?" he wrote. "I worried about this at the time with Mohamed Fahmy, but we decided that the choice was obvious – as obvious as the price we are now paying for making it."
None of the men have been charged. Al Jazeera has condemned the allegations against the journalists and demanded their immediate release. Fahmy's family said last week that Fahmy is no longer suspected of being part of the Muslim Brotherhood, but will likely face trial anyway.
Meanwhile, Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop has said that the Australian government is "working directly with [Greste] and providing consular support."
Greste wrote that he feared the consequences of writing the letters, but could no longer stay silent. He originally tried to convince authorities that the arrest was a "terrible mistake," but changed his mind, he wrote, after realizing that that approach "validates an attack not just on me and my two colleagues but on freedom of speech across Egypt."
He added that the state routinely punishes anyone who challenges the government, or gives a platform to people who do. "So our arrest is not a mistake, and as a journalist this IS my battle," he continued. "I can no longer pretend it'll go away by keeping quiet and crossing my fingers. I have no particular fight with the Egyptian government, just as I have no interest in supporting the MB or any other group here. But as a journalist I am committed to defending a fundamental freedom of the press that no one in my profession can credibly work without."
Fifty-two reporters and editors from news organizations, including The Huffington Post, CNN, the Washington Post and ABC News, have called for the release of the detained journalists.