In light of the Greenpeace ship saga, sometimes we have to ask if activists cross the line when it comes to their methods of protest.

Twenty years ago I spent a few months in a Greenpeace ship Gondwana, campaigning in Antarctica. Although I was officially there as an impartial observer, reporting for a national newspaper and a science magazine, like all the journalists on board I quickly became part of the crew. We stood night watches, took our turns with the shipkeeping chores - and participated in ‘actions’. In journalists’ parlance, we were embedded. 

This didn’t bother me because I supported Greenpeace’s campaign for a ‘world park Antarctica’ and endorsed most of the low-key and peaceful actions we carried out. Typically, these involved sticking our noses and video cameras in to rubbish tips and leaky oil drums around Antarctic bases, and swooping around Soviet fishing fleets in helicopters and inflatable boats.

Antarctica is (or was) a friendly place, so we were generally received with amused courtesy, even at military bases thinly disguised as research stations. At one Chilean base, I was agreeably surprised to be served a pre-lunch gin and tonic by an immaculate mess waiter. Until I was told he was not really a waiter but a parachute colonel who was keeping a low profile while his country’s new civilian government investigated certain excesses carried out under the regime of General Pinochet, whose portrait still hung on the wall. 

And I have never forgotten the expression of hatred on the face of an Argentinian base commandant as he watched a shore party land and photograph a badly sited waste pipe in the gathering dusk. I am quite sure that, in his ideal world, he would have had us locked up and quite possibly shot.

One of my companions that night was a Greenpeace activist called Dima Litvinov, a fiery young Swedish-American of Russian parentage, invaluable for his fluency in half a dozen languages. If the base commandant is still around, he perhaps will be pleased to learn that, as I write, Litvinov is in prison in Murmansk, Russia, charged with piracy. He was one of the 30 members of the crew of the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise, seized, apparently in international waters, by Russian authorities after activists tried to board a Gazprom drilling rig in the Russian arctic. You can follow Greenpeace’s developments here and sign a petition of protest at the arrests and charges here.

I hope it is obvious by now that I have huge sympathy for the Arctic Sunrise crew, especially for the two embedded freelance journalists who were arrested and charged with the rest. It could, literally, have been me facing 15 years in a Russian jail.

Except for one difference. On the Gondwana voyage we were scrupulously careful to act according to the law: indeed the whole aim of the expedition was ensure the upholding of the Antarctic Treaty in the face of governmental and commercial pressures. From accounts supplied by Greenpeace, it seems the actions of the Arctic Sunrise were in a different league. 

This is not remotely to support the ridiculous charge of piracy, especially absurd at a time when mariners around the world face the threat of the genuine article. However it has bothered me for some time that the term ‘peaceful protest’ now seems to encompass outright sabotage, acts which, however motivated, could and should attract criminal sanctions. 

I wish the crew of the Arctic Sunrise an early release, and would dearly wish to hear Dima Litvinov’s account of the drama, preferably over a beer or three. But I hope the episode prompts a wider debate about what constitutes legitimate peaceful protest - and what consequences should be expected by activists who stray over that line.

Michael Cross is Gazette news editor