No news from Manus

New Matilda, January 14, 2013. Read the original here.

Since December, the Immigration department has increasingly censored refugees’ ability to communicate with the outside world. Its petty and vindictive restrictions on this basic freedom are likely to deepen the ongoing mental health crisis within detention, both offshore and domestically. On Sunday, three Iraqi men made serious suicide attempts on Manus Island and up to five others self-harmed.

In December, the Salvation Army, in charge of supplying “humanitarian support” services on Nauru, substantially reduced the amount of time refugees can spend on the internet. Their specific target was an Iranian detainee, Mahdi, who had been publishing detailed accounts of developments on the island on a Facebook page often consulted by refugee advocates and the media.

Since the crackdown, detainees have told the Refugee Action Coalition that security guards now directly supervise internet sessions of detainees seen as ringleaders. The amount of information on Facebook has plummeted.

Similar repression has also occurred on Manus. In early January, refugees did exactly the same thing as thousands of Australians over the Christmas break: they sent friends pictures of where they were staying. But instead of holiday snaps, the Manus refugees’ photos, which were taken with the cameras on DIAC-issued tablet computers, showed the spartan boxes in which they now live, with no closable windows or doors for privacy or shelter from the oppressive heat and malaria-bearing insects.

These pictures were the first time the public has had the chance to assess the actual conditions endured by transferees. Amnesty International, for instance, had been prevented from taking photographs on its November visit to Nauru. As a result, the Manus pictures garnered substantial attention.

This publicity was not to DIAC’s liking. In what they were told was explicit punishment, Manus detainees were deprived of all internet and phone contact for three days. Since then, the tablet cameras have been disabled, and detainees’ web allocation has been more than halved to only three hours per week. Detainees also believe that their phone calls are now being monitored.

Increased restrictions on refugees have not been confined to Australia’s offshore camps. At Villawood detention centre last week access had been cut to the refugee rights website chilout.org. The blackout coincided with Chilout’s advocacy for Ranjini, a pregnant refugee in Villawood currently facing lifelong detention after receiving a negative assessment from ASIO.

No sooner was Chilout restored than access to Facebook was blocked. At a click of a mouse on Thursday night last week, asylum seekers in Villawood were deprived of one of their principal means of communicating and socialising with the outside world. Detainees believe that the ban was due to their use of the platform to communicate with advocates about the situation in Villawood. Access was only restored on Monday.

If refugees are being successfully gagged, it is at least partly because society at large is not advocating for their right to communicate.

Public indifference to refugees is strikingly reflected by the mainstream media. Often, advocates have difficulty even getting journalists interested in major developments. The recent suicide of a Tamil man on a bridging visa received only minimal media attention.

This cannot simply be explained as a January holiday effect; the mass hunger strikes on Nauru last year were also patchily reported at best. No journalist, to my knowledge, maintains regular phone contact with detainees, even though, as DIAC has acknowledged, it would be easy to obtain detainees’ mobile numbers either directly or from advocates. With such slack coverage of refugee and detention issues, it is little wonder that DIAC has a free hand to arbitrarily silence refugees when it chooses to do so.

While News Limited drives a relentless editorial assault on refugees in the tabloid media and The Australian, there is no countervailing force prepared to report and analyse refugee issues objectively. It is left to online and alternative sources like New Matilda or The Global Mail to report on refugee policy for what it is — an acute, rolling human rights crisis leaving a trail of death, despair and broken lives, all at gargantuan taxpayer expense.

A rare insight into the relation between journalists and DIAC was provided at an Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ) forum in November on media access to detention centres. (Watch a video of the event here.)

The forum’s star, Sandi Logan, DIAC’s national communications manager, continually emphasised that media restrictions were a result of DIAC’s “duty of care” to detainees, its determination to safeguard their privacy, and its general commitment to dignity and respect.

It is impossible to accept these claims. As the chief spokesperson for a department responsible for the mass arbitrary imprisonment of innocent people, the idea that DIAC is geared towards any kind of care or respect for detainees does not bear scrutiny.

However, when refugee advocates, myself included, asked Logan to answer that basic contradiction, our attempts were repeatedly hosed down by the forum chair. Apparently this was not the appropriate place to challenge Logan on the central premise of his argument.

Remarkably, Julian Disney, chair of the Australian Press Council, even agreed with Logan that DIAC was justified in imposing some media restrictions, including vetting footage, in order to avoid sur place refugee claims — that is, claims for protection on the grounds that being identified as an asylum seeker in Australia makes persecution likely back at home. Logan had emphasised this as one of the main reasons DIAC needs to limit media access to detention.

Disney did support more media access and less departmental control over filming and interviews overall, provided journalists had informed consent. In obtaining this he saw a role for refugee advocates, who he said could verify consent had been given. But it did not seem to have occurred to him that the occasional sur place claim is well worth the possibility of open reporting on a matter of crucial public interest. Disney shared, apparently, the government’s position that, in the sur place case, avoiding refugee claims trumps the public’s right to know.

The response to the Manus pictures demonstrates unambiguously that it is not sur place appeals that DIAC is worried about, but simply the possibility that the public could see what conditions for refugees are really like. The leaked pictures contained no images of adults’ faces, and just one of a child’s, half-obscured. The risk that they could trigger sur place claims was therefore minimal — yet refugees were still punished for sending them.

Logan had every reason to congratulate himself on his performance at the forum. In front of a progressive audience of refugee advocates and members of the “liberal” media, he projected the image of a reasonable and fair-minded public servant who essentially shared journalists’ commitment to open reporting. The only journalist at the forum who refused to accept Logan’s claim of respect for refugees’ dignity was NM contributing editor Wendy Bacon.

Neither was the full extent of the human rights abuses that result from Australian policy ever honestly acknowledged. Leading up to the forum, Nauru detainees had engaged in mass hunger-strikes, protests, self-harm incidents and suicide attempts.

Yet the strongest description that panellist Dylan Welch, formerly a Fairfax journalist, could make was that they were “a bunch of people … regardless of the veracity of their claims, who are having a pretty horrible time”.

After I tried in the question period to call Logan on his claim to be motivated by respect for refugees’ dignity, Welch chose to intervene to congratulate Logan on his presence at the forum, thereby counteracting the criticism and masking Logan’s failure to respond.

Welch’s decision to offer an unsolicited defence of Immigration’s chief publicist rather than to press the crucial question going to the heart of Logan’s credibility took only a moment, but it exemplified in miniature something deep about the “liberal” media’s role in shaping Australian refugee politics.

Despite some rare exceptions, none of whom work for mainstream outlets, the overall role of the journalism profession in Australia has been to provide ideological cover to Australia’s human rights abuses, by ignoring, minimising, justifying or only offering weak or inessential criticisms of the effects of government policy. History will judge it harshly for its complacency.

On the evidence of November’s ACIJ forum, what is lacking, even in supposedly progressive sections of the corporate media, is any desire to challenge the Gillard Government’s lies for what they are. Refugees currently muzzled in detention will have to look elsewhere for relief from the gag tightening around them.

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