In the next few weeks, the Egyptian Courts will hear Peter Greste’s appeal against his jail sentence in Egypt. His offence was reporting matters that were considered damaging to the Egyptian Government. His trial, which was widely reported in the international media, was a complete farce by Western standards of justice.
Much of the debate has rightly focused on the motion of the freedom of the press and the unfettered reporting of news. But underlying this particular debate is another, possibly more important, issue: the manner in which governments use the justice system to maintain their hold on power, to stifle dissent and to make it impossible to hold them to account.
In most Western democracies, there is a belief that the justice system will be separate from, and above, the political system and that it will be capable of bringing corrupt politicians to account.
The difficulty is that in present-day Egypt, we are not dealing with a democracy nor with a western justice system. The conduct and outcome of the trial of the journalists made it absolutely clear that the judiciary was following the orders of their political masters.
Ideally, a justice system is designed to protect the people, either as individuals or as a group from each other and, equally importantly, from the state.
Ideally, a justice system should not be designed to protect a government.
But this is precisely what the justice system is being used for in Egypt. In the eyes of some politicians (in this case a group of generals) protecting the government is synonymous with protecting the people. And it is an effective and extremely widely used tool to suppress criticism.
In Russia, anti-corruption crusader and political opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is currently under house arrest, has received a suspended sentence and his brother jailed on corruption charges. Many believe that Putin is using the courts to stifle opposition to his government. The difficulty in this case is that it is impossible to assess whether Navalny is guilty or not guilty of the challenges being pressed against him. We have a natural tendency to suspect that charges of corruption against opposition politicians are normally trumped up. Ironically, this is not proof be the case in Australia.
In Turkey, the Erdogan government, rounded up at least 23 journalists, scriptwriters, directors and police officers and accused them of being members of a terrorist organisation conspiring against Turkey.
In Britain, the BBC has shelved a documentary on Princess Diana after pressure from lawyers representing Prince Charles. The good thing is that in the UK, the press and the people are able to express dissatisfaction with such a move.
Peter Greste’s family is expressing confidence in the Egyptian justice system. Publicly at least. In private, they must realise that the release of Peter Greste will be mired in the national and international politics of the Middle East.
It’s ironic that Australian troops are fighting to restore democratic and stable government in Iraq while the recent history of the region indicates that producing a government that is not riven with corruption and sectarian division is completely impossible.
It makes the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the press almost impossible dreams.
Many of us would not have liked the previous government in Egypt but it was a democratically elected one. Not like the current military dictatorship.