Jailed Al Jazeera journalist pens letter before Christmas

Peter Greste is one of three Al Jazeera journalists in prison in Egypt

Peter Greste and his colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, Al Jazeera journalists, have been in prison in Egypt since Dec. 29, 2013. Greste penned a letter just before Christmas from his cell. The letter was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald

I write to all our friends and supporters from my jail cell in Mazraa Prison, Cairo.

As we approach Christmas and the rather inauspicious anniversary of our arrest on December 29, there is a temptation to become morose over our continued detention. After all, on paper we don't seem to have made much progress.

The three of us – myself and my colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed – are still in prison, still convicted of broadcasting false news and aiding a "terrorist organization," and still just one year into prison sentences of seven years for myself and Fahmy, and 10 years for Baher.

But, at the same time, we have changed something fundamental. We – and by that I mean all involved in this fight for justice, including us three, our families, and you, our supporters – have created a huge global awareness of not just our cause, but the far wider and more vital issues of press freedom, the persecution of journalists, and of justice in Egypt.

We have galvanized an incredible coalition of political, diplomatic and media figures, as well as a vast army of social media supporters to fight for that most basic of rights: the right to know. Everyone, from US President Barack Obama to the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, has been speaking out both publicly and in private to demand our release and call for a free press in Egypt.

But, even more than that, we have reignited public discussion and awareness of the vital role that unfettered journalism plays in any healthy, functioning democracy.

Sometimes it is easy to forget why we need it at all. Journalism can, at times, look pretty sordid, and few of us who work in it can claim to have never succumbed to the more base instincts of our trade. And in the wired world of the internet, with its citizen reporters and millions of sources, it is tempting to wonder why we need professional journalists at all. 

But that noise is the reason itself. Never has cleared-eyed, critical, skeptical journalism been more necessary to help make sense of a world overloaded with information.

We should never forget that journalism is not a science. It is a human craft as vulnerable to biases and inaccuracies and flaws as any other. And, at its worst, it can be quite destructive. But the reason we still buy newspapers, listen to the radio or switch on the evenings TV news bulletin is to find context and understanding; a sense of perspective.

The best journalism puts a frame around an issue. It helps define it, clarifies it, makes sense of it. And, above all, it challenges authority. 

In a functioning democracy, political legitimacy comes from the voters. We, the people, hire politicians. As with any responsible business, it is incumbent on employers to keep an eye on their employees and, as we all know, we tend to work better, more efficiently and more honestly when we know we are being monitored.

I am not talking of a big brother society here. Just good, old-fashioned accountability.

The philosopher and writer Albert Camus was absolutely right when he said the press can, of course, be both good and bad, but without freedom it can never be anything but bad. 

That is why our cause, as opposed to simply our case, is so important, and not just for Egypt. The noise you all have been making sends a clear and unequivocal message to politicians around the world: a free press is an indivisible part of a free society.

As we approach the end of our first year in prison, I cannot help but feel proud and strengthened by all that has been achieved so far. We haven't won this fight yet – we are still behind bars after all – but we have made our cause abundantly and unequivocally clear. 

And for that reason, it really is a very good Christmas.

So, from our cell in Cairo, all the very best in season's greetings.

NOTE: On December 29th at 9pm ET/6pm PT, Al Jazeera America will air an hour-long special, “Journalism Is Not a Crime,” hosted by John Seigenthaler and devoted to marking the one-year anniversary of the arrest and wrongful incarceration of the media network’s journalists. To express your support of Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, please tweet your support at #FreeAJStaff and sign the petition.

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