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Talking about freedom

Chelsea Manning and journalist Peter Greste are the perfect parallels to a conversation on democracy.

Katie Hryce

Are there two more qualified people on Earth to talk about the importance of freedom than Chelsea Manning and Peter Greste? Both Manning and Greste are eminent casualties of international unrest and widespread government furtiveness; and both have rightly recurred as thought leaders on issues of free speech and government transparency. This weekend, both grace the Concert Hall stage for one of the closing discussions of Antidote, our weekend of action, ideas and change

Former soldier Chelsea Manning is an American whistleblower, politician and transgender activist who survived seven years of prison and solitary confinement after being charged with violating the Espionage Act and stealing property of the US government. The material contained in Manning’s 2010 military leaks was explosive and remains contentious, no doubt feeding her political drive and crusades for change to this day. While contemporaries Edward Snowden and Julian Assange remain by right of asylum in Russia and England respectively, Manning ran for the United States Democratic Senate nomination in the state of Maryland in June this year.

Now having taken a step back from campaigning, Manning is focusing on activism in the many spheres her experiences and interests take her — contesting issues around police violence, authoritarianism, prison reform, detention, immigration, mental health and LGBTQI rights. Manning has just celebrated five years since publicly coming out as transgender— “As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me […] I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female”—one of presumably many women that Trump has labelled a “traitor” on Twitter.

Chelsea Manning for The Guardian. Image: Tracey Salazar

Manning is one of this century’s true changemakers, both intentionally and unintentionally, with a history of uniquely human and at times precarious life situations. Her exposure of government and military secrets was a rallying cry for change, for freedom of speech, democratic fairness and government transparency, especially for those furthest from power and spaces for open discourse. Conversely, her transition to becoming a woman may have been a private journey but with an undeniably public impact at a time where LGBTQI issues, representative  intersectionality and inclusive third-wave feminism are increasingly normalised elements of mainstream media and digital discussion. Her voice on these issues in the marketplace of ideas could indeed be the antidote to legacies of hatred, misunderstanding and abuses of power.

In perfect parallel, Australian journalist Peter Greste will host this session with Manning. Greste was imprisoned, along with two other Al Jazeera English journalists, by Egyptian authorities in 2013 with a seven-year sentence for their reporting. He was released without explanation in 2015, returning to Australia and accepting that year’s Australian Human Rights Medal.

Peter Greste on ABC's Foreign Correspondent Image: Greg Wilesmith

Now the UNESCO Chair in Journalism & Communication at the University of Queensland, Greste has been instrumental in guiding local and international conversations around the increasing importance of freedom of the press in the modern age. Speaking at numerous writers’ and journalists’ festivals (not to mention Splendour In The Grass) in recent years on the topic, Greste is a breathing exemplar of how imperative the preservation of press freedom is, all the while criticising elements of modern journalistic practices and the way the fourth estate is commonly understood in a post-9/11, post-Trump-as-President world.

Similar to Chelsea Manning, Greste’s experience precedes him; his mere survival, let alone his unwavering commitment to questioning practices detrimental to a free press, are surely enough to pique interest for many followers of politics, press and modern outrage.

We welcome Peter Greste’s return to the interviewer’s chair, and Chelsea Manning live via satellite direct from Los Angeles, in what will be two strings speaking in sympathy, looking out to the world.

Chelsea Manning and Peter Greste speak as part of the Sydney Opera House's Antidote festival on Sunday, August 2nd.

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