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Interview with Peter Greste; Egypt's Star Satirist; Imagine a World. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired January 1, 2016 - 10:30:00   ET




CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST (voice-over): Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London with a special

edition tonight, looking back at some of the year's big stories.

Yet again, this year was a very dangerous one for the men and women who report and photograph the news, with the Committee to Protect Journalists

confirming that 59 have been killed in the line of duty so far this year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly Syria was the deadliest place to work, with many local journalists killed covering the civil war there. Media front lines

exist all over the world including Paris, where, in January, satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo" was attacked by Al Qaeda and ISIS terrorists for

daring to poke fun at Islamic extremism. The world turned out to condemn the slaughter of 12 cartoonists.

While regimes all over the world look to limit the press, there were some breaks in the cloud. After 400 days in an Egyptian jail, Peter Greste was

released earlier this year after being convicted of supporting terrorism while simply doing his job for Al Jazeera in Cairo.

By the end of the year, his two colleagues, convicted in the same trial, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were also freed. Peter Greste traveled to

Australia as soon as he was released and I spoke to him the night he arrived home.


AMANPOUR: Peter Greste, it really is great to see you and you have been looking so smiley and happy and your arms in the air.

Just how is it to be out?

GRESTE: Oh, look, Christiane, it's really difficult to talk about this without sounding as -- without speaking in cliches. Now it's just

absolutely awesome.

I was trying to imagine what it would be like probably 400 times, in fact, over the last year or so; every day I was thinking about this, imagine

you're trying to picture what it would feel like walking through that door.

But believe me, nothing but nothing I imagined came even close to what it was like.

I've been physically free for about three or four days beforehand. But it really needed that big moment, walking through the door at the airport and

seeing that massive crowd and waving to everyone to really get that emotional freedom.

AMANPOUR: Well, it's so good to hear you say that and I'm sorry to put you back now into remembering and recalling for us what you went through for

more than a year.

What did it take to get you through those 400-plus days and nights?

GRESTE: Incarceration anywhere is a difficult thing to cope with and particularly when it's an open-ended process. We're not really sure about

how it's all going to resolve itself. But I had to make a very conscious decision, I think, to really look after myself physically, emotionally,

intellectually and spiritually. And so --


GRESTE: -- I was pretty careful to try and keep up a strict regime of fitness. We have space where we were able to exercise. It's pretty

limited but you still were able to work out some exercises and keep fit, physically fit.

And as you may know, I also started a course -- a master's degree in international relations. And I also spent quite a lot of time meditating.

I think all of those things really helped me get through some of the harder times, some of the darker times.

AMANPOUR: You know, at the heart of all of this were these allegations against you and I spent a lot of time questioning Egyptian officials and

many of our colleagues did as well, obviously your lawyers and your family and friends and everybody.

And we were told over and over again that you had spread falsehoods, that you were members or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the whole idea

of being terrorists and this and that.

Why do you think those were the charges leveled against you?

GRESTE: Look, Christiane, I really don't know. What we always said to the Egyptians and to everyone else is that the evidence is in our work and the

allegations were regarding our public work. They were saying that we were acting as mouthpieces, as almost as propagandists for the Muslim


And they were referring very much to the work that we were putting on air. And so we always said, look, have a look at what's on air. It's on the --

it's a matter of public record; by definition what we do is on the record.

And if there is something in there that we need to answer for, then we're happy to answer for it. We're responsible for our output, as is any

journalist. And I still felt -- I feel now and I always felt -- that was always -- that was never an issue.

Now if there's something else that was involved with this, it's -- really, I don't know.

AMANPOUR: You've also said clearly since you came out and your parents have said it as well that your joy is somewhat tempered by the concern for

Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, who are still there. And you've said, "If I could be free, they should be free."

Do you get any sense that they would be following you anytime soon?

GRESTE: We've heard the reports; obviously the Egyptian -- sorry, the Canadian foreign minister has said that Fahmy's release is imminent; all I

can say is -- repeat is that we haven't heard anything more. I'm not privy to any further negotiations or discussions. You know, all I can say is

that it's great to be free and that I'm really looking forward to the others following in my footsteps as soon as possible.

AMANPOUR: Were you physically mistreated?

GRESTE: No. Not at all. Not at all. You know, there's a lot of talk about the conditions in Egyptian prisons and I know that there are some

pretty difficult places there. But our treatment was pretty reasonable, was quite decent.

AMANPOUR: Were you aware of all the support that you were getting from the outside, of what your own channel was doing and the whole journalistic


GRESTE: Let me say that I was -- when I say that I was aware, I -- my family that kept bringing news about what was happening and occasionally

they'd bring in photographs of people with the "Zip the Lips" campaign, I saw a photograph of you with the three AJ staffs. That was very, very


And I want to thank you and everyone who backed us, the Australian government and the foreign ministry, the British, the Americans, everyone

who was involved in the campaign.

And all of the thousands, the hundreds of thousands of people who supported us online, the tweets and Facebook messages and so on. But also our

professional community.

And this comes back to your original question. Look, you know as well as I do just how fractious and cantankerous and competitive journalists really

are, how difficult it is to get them to work together and cooperate on anything.

To see the way that they pulled together around this issue in particular was absolutely remarkable.

AMANPOUR: I want to know how it was for you when you saw your parents again; I know you've seen them a couple of times when they visited, but

when you saw them as a free person again.

GRESTE: Yes, that was quite spectacular. It's really hard to describe. You can imagine it in all sorts of ways but unless you're been through

something like this, and walked out, walked through a door to see people as a free man after 400 days is -- it's really difficult to imagine. It was

just absolutely awesome.

AMANPOUR: Are you a changed man?

GRESTE: Look, you can't go through something like this, an experience like this without being changed. But I would like to think --


GRESTE: -- I hope to think -- we'll need to see how things unfold over the coming weeks and months. But I would like to think I've changed perhaps

for the better.

You know, I've learned an awful lot about myself. I've grown a lot. I've learnt a lot about my family. I've -- my incredible family.


GRESTE: But -- and this campaign wouldn't have been half the campaign that it turned out to be if it wasn't for them.

I've learned a lot about life. I've learned a lot about what I'm capable of as well, which I think is pretty important.

And so as difficult and as tough as it has been, at the end of the day, I think it's actually been probably a more positive experience than it has

been a damaging one.

AMANPOUR: You know, you say you changed. You've learnt a lot. I wonder what's next for you.

Do you continue this job?

Because I had, as you know, a wonderful conversation with your parents the day you were freed and perhaps jokingly, perhaps not, your mum said that

perhaps the first thing she would do is put you over her knee and give you a good whack for giving her such a hard time as a foreign correspondent,

causing so much worry.

GRESTE: Yes, well, I've managed to avoid that whack. Just make sure my mum's out of earshot when I say that.

I really don't know, Christiane. I find it hard to imagine giving this business up. I feel it's an important job. I think what we do does have a

really important function.

But I also recognize that we've been able to build an incredible coalition of people, incredible platform for these freedom of speech issues. And I

think I'd like to continue with that.

I'd like to use that platform and make sure that we don't lose sight of the fact this is an important issue that freedom of the press is a problem in

all sorts of societies and it is absolutely fundamental to the functioning of healthy democracies.

AMANPOUR: Well, we wish so much luck and a lot of time to get fully well and happy and healthy again and take all the time you need. It's great to

see you out and about. Peter, thanks so much. Good luck.

GRESTE: Thank you. Thanks again, Christiane. Lovely to talk to you.


AMANPOUR: And regimes that shut down those who try and hold them accountable are even less likely to laugh at themselves. That's something

Bassem Youssef found out. "Egypt's Jon Stewart" tells his story next.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to this special edition of our program.

Now he spoke truth to power like Egyptians had never seen before and made them laugh along the way.

Bassem Youssef, dubbed Egypt's Jon Stewart, left no one unscathed with his biting satire during the country's turbulent Arab Spring uprising. But

these confusing political times did come back to bite Bassem. He shut down his own show because of what he calls, quote, "insurmountable pressure."

When I spoke with Bassem recently he told me that satire didn't start with him and it certainly won't end with this show.


AMANPOUR: Bassem Youssef, welcome back to the program. Great to see you.

YOUSSEF: Lovely to be with you again, Christiane. I really miss you. I'm -- really lovely to see you again.

AMANPOUR: So I want to ask you why you had to quit show business and what are you teaching --


AMANPOUR: -- your students at Harvard.

YOUSSEF: Well, you know, sometimes circumstances are not the best for you to continue a political satire show. Sometimes jokes kind of are annoying.

I'm not teaching. I'm leading study groups because Harvard professors are very touchy when resident fellows come in and say they teach. So I'm

leading study groups and my topic is about political satire and humor and how they interact with political, social and even religious taboos.

AMANPOUR: I mean clearly in countries such as your own, Bassem, there seems to be no room for satire at all.

YOUSSEF: Well, there is room for satire and comedy as long as it's acceptable by the people controlling the atmosphere. So maybe I -- maybe I

was too rogue. So that's why we stopped.

AMANPOUR: You know, but you were an equal opportunity offender. I mean, and let's remind our viewers that you went from being a heart surgeon to

the most popular television host right after the Arab Spring, right around the time it was happening in your country.

And you basically offended the Mubaraks, the Morsis and you probably would have done with the Sisis.

I want to play a little bit of a documentary that is being done about your program.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Egypt's prosecutor general has issued a warrant for Youssef's arrest.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): Suspension of the popular and controversial program was announced just minutes before it was due to go on

the air.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): (Speaking foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): You're going to penalize people for saying jokes?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Once you go after a joke, that's a joke in itself.


YOUSSEF: The director of the documentary is a senior producer with Jon Stewart. She's been following me for the past 2.5 years.

It basically documents my story and not just my story but basically the atmosphere that we were living in in the past 2.5 years. It's talking

about political satire, humor; how can people be all for a certain program or a joke, but when the joke turns on them, they kind of like turn on you.

And so maybe we were an equal opportunity satirist, but they were not equal opportunity audience.

AMANPOUR: Well, how important is it to be able to have space for satire?

Particularly in authoritarian parts of the world such as your own?

YOUSSEF: What -- who said that my country's authoritarian?

Come on. I mean, don't put like words in my mouth.

We are -- it's a very, very good, democratic country, please.


Everything is good. I mean, the -- everybody can say whatever they want.

What are you talking about?

I mean, did I miss anything?

It's great. It's amazing.

AMANPOUR: So how important is it to be able to actually have a program such as your own?

YOUSSEF: You know, like I think you really can't take satire out. I mean, satire didn't begin or end with my program. It is a part of people's

culture, a part of people's thoughts.

So if one program is off, there are people who will find other ways.

AMANPOUR: Do you believe there are limits to satire and limits to how much you can or will offend people?

I obviously refer to the "Charlie Hebdo" cartoons and the terrible price that 12 of their satirists paid.

YOUSSEF: Well, personally I don't think that you should make fun of other people's beliefs or other people's religions.

At the end of the day, you cannot really control the world or the Internet. The -- people will continue to offend. The way that you face these

offenses is not through killing or not through burning flags or putting embassies under siege. The way is to have a social conversation, make this

deemed uncool.

I mean, I'm going to give you an example. It might not be relevant but 50 years ago, cigarettes were cool. Fifty years later, cigarettes are not


It has to be through a very extended social conversation, not through violence because basically the people who did what they did in "Charlie

Hebdo," the people who killed them and committed the murders, they offended our religion more than their cartoons did.

AMANPOUR: I want to play you a clip of "Saturday Night Live," a recent sketch about ISIS. And basically it's a father who's dropping off his

young daughter at the airport and giving her some walk-around money and saying be careful.

Let me play it and I want to ask your reaction afterwards.



AMANPOUR: So, Bassem, really, it's very funny. But on the other hand, let's face it, these are people who have slit the throats of our

colleagues, who have enslaved women. I want to ask you a serious question.

What is it about the West which can tolerate that kind of joke even against the most inhuman and abominable attacks that that group has perpetrated on

us versus your part of the world, which cannot tolerate a cartoon and some people --


YOUSSEF: -- because if you come to my part of the world, YouTube is infested with videos making fun of ISIS.

We're basically making fun of their own anthem. We're putting their songs where they play while killing people. We're putting these songs on belly

dancing scenes. We are making fun -- we are having sketches; people are making fun of them.

I think if there's anybody who's making a mockery of our religion, it is that people like ISIS and people like killing "Charlie Hebdo."

I mean, I don't want to even call them extreme Muslims. I think they are a bunch of lunatics who, instead of playing "Grand Theft Auto" on video

games, they want to do it in real life.

So they are just a bunch of murderers. And whether they put a black flag or whatever religious slogans, it happens with all religions. There could

be an extreme form of Ku Klux Klan, as much as I consider it. So they are crazy and they are a threat for me as much they are a threat to you.

AMANPOUR: Do you think ironically that you might be popular again in Egypt now because you've got a regime that is no friend of the extreme Islamists,

and maybe some of your funny skits against the Muslim Brotherhood might fit right in with today's culture in Egypt?

YOUSSEF: Well, the thing is it's not -- I mean, you can't go back doing a show with a premeditated agenda. You cannot -- if you're going to do the

show, you're going to make fun of whatever.

The question is will I be allowed to do, make fun of whatever because I might do -- I might make fun, for example, of ISIS today but tomorrow I

would like to make fun of people in authority.

The question is, will I allowed to be -- to do so.

And basically are there going to be TV channels in the region that would like to carry that kind of a show? That's the biggest question.

So I don't think it is likely that I'm going to be back on air anytime soon.

AMANPOUR: Perhaps you might be on the air, let's say, in the United States.

Have you thought about Jon Stewart's soon-to-be vacant seat at "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central?

YOUSSEF: Oh, I mean, the day that I actually been chosen to replace Jon Stewart will be like -- it will be glorious. But I don't think that

Americans would like to take their political satire from a Middle Eastern guy with a thick accent. I think this is going to be even more difficult

than electing a black president.

But you know, let's hope.

AMANPOUR: Bassem Youssef, thank you so much for joining me.

YOUSSEF: Thank you very much.


AMANPOUR: Humor can be a powerful weapon against oppressive regimes but those who take up their pens against Syria's Bashar al-Assad have paid a

heavy price for what they've drawn as well as what they've written. We find out more next.





AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, imagine a world where your hands become enemy number 1 for a dictator.

Legendary Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat was almost killed by security forces shortly after the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011. Because he dared put

pen to paper, drawing cartoons lampooning President Bashar al-Assad, he had to flee to Kuwait. And we asked him about the high cost of drawing the

truth back home.


ALI FERZAT, CARTOONIST (through translator): On the day of August 25, 2011, a security police car with tinted windows was following me with four

men inside carrying batons. And then they cornered me in one of the most important squares in Damascus and four men jumped out of the car and

started attacking me.

After about half an hour of driving through which I was still being beaten on my eyes, on my head with their batons, then they grabbed my fingers and

they started breaking them one by one so to teach me a lesson for insulting the president.

And they told me that this is how you learn not to insult the president and that the president's shoes is over your head and over the head of anyone

who is talking about freedom.

It is true they broke me up. But what I did was break out of the fear that was dominating Syria for the past 50 years.

I was not surprised about what happened. And I was pained for those cartoonists. Those artists did not carry a gun or a weapon. They only

carried a pen, just like I did. It appears that the pen is mightier than any weapon, as we have seen when the terrorists attacked and killed those



AMANPOUR: That is it for our program tonight. Remember, you can now also listen to our show as a podcast, or see our interviews online at and follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you for watching and goodbye from London.