ABC RN Breakfast, interview with Fran Kelly

Subjects: Peter Greste imprisonment, Thai elections, future of the Australia Network, relationship with Indonesia.

Transcript, E&OE, proof only

31 January 2014

FRAN KELLY: Diplomatic efforts to free the Australian journalist, Peter Greste, who's been ordered to stand trial in Egypt are gaining momentum but are they gaining traction? Peter Greste is accused of aiding a terrorist group and endangering national security.

The Al Jazeera newsman was arrested along with two of his colleagues in late December on suspicion of collaborating with the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood. And he's been in prison most of the time in solitary confinement ever since.

Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has discussed Peter Greste's imprisonment with her Egyptian counterpart Nabil Fahmy. Minister, welcome to RN Breakfast.

JULIE BISHOP: Good morning, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: You've spoken with the Egyptian Foreign Minister about Peter Greste's detention, what assurances were you seeking?

JULIE BISHOP: First I raised the issue with the Egyptian Ambassador here in Canberra on 16 January. And requested that our head of mission be able to meet with the Prosecutor General and that hadn't occurred so I telephoned the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Nabil Fahmy, on 28 January and he's a very experienced diplomat and politician and we had a very candid discussion. I raised our concerns, he agreed to arrange for our head of mission to meet with the Egyptian Prosecutor General and that meeting took place last night.

He did give us an assurance that as far as he was concerned, the case would be dealt with expeditiously and fairly and I raised a number of issues and registered our concern in a number of areas. I…

FRAN KELLY: Which areas?

JULIE BISHOP: In terms of his detention, whether he could receive conditional release, the details of the charges and also consular matters regarding his welfare. I understand from our head of mission in Cairo, Dr King, that in his meeting with the Prosecutor General, the Prosecutor General expressed his regret that an Australian national had been caught up in this matter.

He reiterated his respect for the Australian Government and the people of Australia and our laws and then said it was now a matter for the courts because criminal proceedings were underway.

I am concerned about these charges that've been made against Mr Greste. And I'm particularly concerned and disappointed that they are pursuing him and other journalists in criminal proceedings.

FRAN KELLY: Yes, of course, caught up in this matter is an understatement, isn't it? These are very serious charges he faces. He's accused of aiding a terrorist group and endangering national security.

Did you seek and did the Minister give any further details of these charges against Peter Greste? Because Peter Greste of course says they're nonsense. He was just – this was a very routine reporting assignment and he was really just getting both sides of a story.

JULIE BISHOP: Yes, the issue is complicated by virtue of the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood has been designated a terrorist organisation by the interim Egyptian Government.

The public prosecutor did detail the charges. Essentially the Egyptian defendants have been charged with the crimes of joining a terrorist group and then the journalists have been charged with collaborating with the Egyptian defendants through their work.

Now I went into some detail with the Foreign Minister but at that stage we didn't have the details of the case that we've now received from the Prosecutor General so we will be making further representations.

FRAN KELLY: What is the capacity for you as the Australian Foreign Minister and our consular officials to actually get any action here in terms of are we making demands for these charges against Peter Greste to be dropped, can you do that, or is it beyond that now and did you get any joy on your urging of conditional release?

JULIE BISHOP: We had a very candid conversation. Foreign Minister Fahmy took on board all of the concerns I raised. He said he registered them. He would take them up with the relevant ministers. Of course he is a foreign minister, he was taking them up with the Attorney General and that would be the relevant minister. But I made it clear that I would continue to raise concerns and raise the issues as we learned more about the case.

And so now that our head of mission, our ambassador in Cairo has met with the prosecutor, we've got a lot more information. I'll be passing that on to Mr Greste's family. They have been kept in touch with our consular officials with the Australian embassy in Cairo and I have contacted them on a number of occasions to let them know what we've been doing, not only about my meeting with the ambassador to Egypt, but also my conversation with the foreign minister and our ambassador in Egypt has also met the Ministry of Justice. So…

FRAN KELLY: Is it your view that Peter Greste should be released and these charges dropped and should our Prime Minister be making representations at that level?

JULIE BISHOP: Fran, at this stage we have just learned the detail of the charges and we'll go through that and make some more representations. Clearly it is not possible for another nation to interfere in the criminal proceedings of another country. Just reverse the situation – if a foreign national had been charged with offences and was in the Australian legal system, there is a limit to what an overseas government could do to interfere in those proceedings. But we will continue to press our position that he should be given conditional release while we consider what more we can do to seek his release overall.

Now I'll continue to press the case with the Egyptian Government, we are obviously concerned about the developments in Egypt generally. There's been imposition of restrictive measures directed at political opponents, there's been force being used against protesters, the Muslim Brotherhood has been designated a terrorist organisation.

Egypt is in the middle of a transition to democracy, we hope that a new constitution will set Egypt on the path to democracy, we hope that there will be free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections in the near future. But these other issues are obviously causing not only Australia but other countries deep concern and we will continue to raise them with Egypt.

FRAN KELLY: There's a lot of issues to get to but just briefly, as Australia's Foreign Minister, would you be warning other Australian journalists not to travel, to report from Cairo at the moment?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, I have taken issue with measures that restrict freedom of the media, that subject journalists to intimidation or detention and our challenge of course is to press on the Egyptian authorities that in its transition to democracy and in the lead-up to the elections, we would have expected Egypt to respect freedom of expression.

I mean journalists have a legitimate role to play in the protection of a democracy and that inevitably involves them having contact with a wide range of groups in society. And in this instance…

FRAN KELLY: So a warning or not.

JULIE BISHOP: Well, I think that any sensible journalist would take heed of what has occurred.

FRAN KELLY: Okay. You're listening to RN Breakfast. It's 16 minutes to 8. Our guest this morning is Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop.

Minister, closer to home in our region, trouble in Thailand. The Thai people go to the polls on Sunday. The opposition is boycotting the poll. Will this vote actually resolve anything?

JULIE BISHOP: We have urged all parties to respect the right of the Thai people to vote in the elections on 2 February. We're encouraging all parties to resolve their political differences through peaceful and democratic processes and with respect for the rule of law but it is a challenging situation.

We're certainly providing our goodwill and support to Thailand as it tries to find ways to settle its political difficulties. In particular for the elections on 2 February, we are advising Australians to avoid polling places, to avoid political rallies and protest activities because the situation is still volatile.

FRAN KELLY: On another issue there are reports around in the last two days that the Australia Network which is obviously operated by the ABC will be scrapped in the May budget. You've been critical of the network in the past – do you want it scrapped?

JULIE BISHOP: Look, it's part of my job to ensure that taxpayers' money is being used efficiently and to good effect and that applies to the Australia Network and…

FRAN KELLY: And is it?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, the Labor Party committed $223 million to a 10-year contract with the ABC to provide quality programs through the Australia Network and they've got a contractual responsibility to relay quality content that aims to promote Australia in the region.

I am concerned given the number of complaints I've received that while the content and program selections are obviously up to the ABC, that it's not actually meeting its charter and codes of practice.

FRAN KELLY: Part of the charter is as an instrument of soft diplomacy into the region, does it fulfil that role and do we need that? Should it exist at all, the Australia Network in your view?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, that's a very good question, Fran. Under the agreement, the ABC undertakes to advance a number of government objectives including to foster the improved understanding of Australia's global role, to increase awareness of the links between Australia and the Asian region and it's been described by successive governments as an important tool of public diplomacy.

But if concerns are constantly raised about the quality of the content broadcast by the Australia Network into the region. It does contribute to global perceptions about Australia and our people and I think doubts have emerged from within the ABC over its own handling of issues in recent times.

I think it's appropriate that the Australian Government do review the contract because of course you know the tender process was botched under Labor – it was found to have been poorly handled so it's appropriate that we should look at that tender process anyway.

But overall the question of whether the ABC is fulfilling its obligations under that agreement is something that I'm considering right now.

FRAN KELLY: The Government's also announced an efficiency review of the ABC. Now on the eve of the election Tony Abbott who was then Opposition leader made this promise:

TONY ABBOTT: I trust everyone actually listened to what Joe Hockey has said last week and again this week. No cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST, and no cuts to the ABC or SBS.

FRAN KELLY: Now, Minister, can you make that pledge for us again here and now on ABC radio, no cuts to ABC or SBS?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, what Malcolm Turnbull announced yesterday as Minister for Communications, is a routine responsibility of the Minister for Communications to ensure that the ABC and SBS use public resources as efficiently as possible. And so this review is not looking at the charter or the editorial or the programming content, it's looking at the cost of delivering that content and the operations that support it. So it's a routine responsibility.

I'm undertaking a similar review into the application of our aid budget and how we use our foreign aid budget as effectively and efficiently as possible. That's our responsibility.

FRAN KELLY: But can you promise no cuts to the ABC budget?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, it's not my area of responsibility, that's a matter for Minister Turnbull. Just as I wouldn't expect him to comment on what I'm doing in the aid budget.

FRAN KELLY: Okay.

JULIE BISHOP: I wouldn't comment on what he's doing but it is a routine responsibility for him to ensure that he ABC and SBS use taxpayers' money as effectively and as efficiently as possible.

FRAN KELLY: Just finally, Minister, the – one of your colleagues, the Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, has made the point no boats have arrived in January so success for the Government's policy on that front at this point. But a lot of people describe Australia's relationship currently with our most important neighbour, Indonesia, never at a lower ebb. Are you factoring in the fact that if the boats stop coming, then you can put the relationship with Indonesia back on track at that point?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, I don't accept that definition of the relationship at this point. I'm in constant communication with Foreign Minister Natalegawa, we have a process in place to resolve our differences over the allegations that were made about the surveillance activity as a result of the Snowden matter. We have a process in place and we're going through that but we're in constant communication.

Of course there will be always difficulties and challenges with a close neighbour and the Australian-Indonesia relationship is no different but there is goodwill on both sides. We cooperate across a large number of areas, a very diverse broad wide-ranging area of connection and engagement and that will continue to be the case.

FRAN KELLY: Julie Bishop, thank you very much.

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