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Media gag silences asylum seekers

  • 27 June 2011

In 2001 the ABC'a Four Corners program The Inside Story broadcast images of Shayan Bedraie, a six-year old Iranian boy who was detained with his parents in Villawood detention centre in Sydney's west. Shayan was mute, listless and refused to eat or drink.

Shayan and his family had first been detained in South Australia's Woomera detention centre for 11 months before being moved to Villawood. According to accounts of Shayan's time at Woomera:

There were some riots and he saw people burning, setting fire to themselves. He saw guards with batons, using the batons to try to quell the riot, and that's when he started to withdraw ...

In Villawood, he walked into a room where one of the detainees had cut his wrists, and there was blood, and he saw all this happening. And he ran out and he spoke to his mother and he said, 'There's a man dead.' And he hasn't spoken since.

The footage of Shayan was obtained covertly by fellow detainee, Dr Aamer Sultan, using a camera smuggled into the centre. Sultan then shared the story with ABC journalist Debbie Whitmont. Upon its broadcast, The Inside Story shocked some Australians enough to form Chilout (Children Out of Detention), and motivated people to campaign to have children released from behind the razor wire.

There were tangible outcomes to all this. In 2005 the Howard Government capitulated to pressure from backbenchers and the public, agreeing to release all families into community detention, and amending the Migration Act to state that 'children should be detained as a measure of last resort'.

The case illustrates how giving an issue a human face can change how people think and act. Which makes the fact that today, as in 2001, journalists are banned from interviewing or filming the 6729 people detained in Australia's immigration detention facilities, all the more troubling.

Since 2001, Australians have heard of the 'invasion' of refugees into a country that is increasingly closing its borders to those in need of protection. But rarely have we seen images of those plucked from the ocean or detained under Australia's mandatory detention regime. The ABC's Media Watch has noted this lack of footage available to Australian journalists.

Since 2002 the Australian Press Council has been making statements about the restrictions placed on media access to detained asylum seekers. It argues that a 'free press is