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Media gag silences asylum seekers


'Press ban' by Chris JohnstonIn 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 crucial to the proper functioning of democracy ... this government is severely restricting the ability of the news media to report freely on a question that has become central to political debate in Australia'.

In response to recent protests inside Australian detention centres, unauthorised media access to detention centres has been raised to 'critical' incident status. This is the status given to potential chemical and biological attacks.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship says its only concern is with protecting detainees. The Howard Government's ban on interviewing asylum seekers in detention was justified as protecting asylum seekers from reprisals they may face if they return to their home countries. The Department maintains that it refuses media access to journalists to 'respect the privacy and dignity of detainees'.

But as the Press Council points out, 'it is possible to report an interview without identifying the person or persons', besides which 'asylum seekers themselves are surely the best judges of whether they or their families will be endangered if they speak out'. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance says the ban stops the Australian public from hearing the refugees' side of the story.

The media ban is not about respecting privacy or dignity. Surely asylum seekers are capable of determining who is and is not acting in their best interests. The Bedraie family, even under traumatic circumstances, coulde determine that Whitmont wanted to tell their story with dignity and respect.

As of the end of May 2011 there were 1082 children in various forms of immigration restriction on Christmas Island and on the Australian mainland. But for the most part we won't see images of them. Like Philip Ruddock before him, the current Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Chris Bowen is trying to hide refugees away from the public.

In their 2007 book Silencing Dissent, Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison argue that 'Citizens see little value or virtue in political engagements or participation beyond their own interests'. While there are multiple examples of this, there are exceptions. The reaction to Shayan and similar cases shows that Australia is a decent society that does not tolerate children being detained in prison-like conditions.

The inability of journalists to tell their stories and for the public to hear and see children who are being denied basic human rights ensures asylum seekers continue to be dehumanised.

Jo CoghlanDr Jo Coghlan is a lecturer in politics and international relations at the School of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of NSW and co-editor of Seeking Refuge: Asylum Seekers and Politics in a Globalising World. She began visiting asylum seekers, including Shayan, at Villawood in 2001. 

Topic tags: Four Corners, Inside Story, Shayan Bedraie, Woomera, Villawood, Aamer Sultan, Debbie Whitmont



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Existing comments

Excellent piece. This article explains cogently ideas I have thought but not articulated. I have also often noted to myself the anomaly that those in our prisons being able to tell their stories (as they should), but those in immigration detention cannot. The 'Go Back' documentary on SBS last week demonstrates the power of a personal story on the opinions of otherwise steadfast, generalised views.

Moira Byrne Garton | 27 June 2011  

The Government is doing a good job in protecting the privacy of real refugees. The Government is also wise not to give more free publicity to the minority of rioters and their supporters in the people smuggling industry.

It seems whenever the Government is doing something positive, the people smuggling industry cries foul. I wonder when all the beneficiaries of the people smuggling industry are ready to provide us with details of how much they made out of human misery and people trading. I am sure they would not want these details given to the media.

Beat Odermatt | 27 June 2011  

I agree wholeheartedly with Moira Byrne Garton's comments. As for Beat Odermatt's comments, given the opportunity, journalists are likely to also interview 'people smugglers'. Their stories may have some surprises.

Maureen Strazzari | 27 June 2011  

The problem is with journalism itself. An editor or a journalist wants to make a point about some real or imagined abuse. She (usually) then finds one person or family that highlights that area and makes a story from it. Whatever happened to "Hard cases make bad law"?

Leaving the 99 in the desert and going after the one that was lost may produce a good story, but it is a recipe for bad policy.

Frank | 27 June 2011  

And don't forget that those who do incite compassion and care, like my beloved Bakhtiyari family, are brutalised even more. I have the files of this family under FOI and what they did to even a new born baby to punish the kids for being loved is astounding. The baby born in Adelaide was illegally issued with a birth certificate to DIAC, not to the parents, it stated both parents were Afghans married in Afghanistan. Which is the truth that DIAC had always known. Three DIAC officers then conspired with the Pakistan government to have him declared a Pakistani. They first sent his birth certificate but the embassy refused to play along. They tent sent in a bogus certificate of identity stating the boy was born in Quetta and was Pakistani. The embassy went along. So a baby of Afghan parents, as even stated by the High Court, became a Pakistani born in Quetta through fraud. But because no-one can look at this sort of behaviour by DIAC they got away with it. I was at the boys first birthday in surburban Adelaide and the first anyone knew of this birth certificate was when I got the documents

Marilyn | 27 June 2011  

Beat, refugees are not people smugglers.

Marilyn | 27 June 2011  

I agree with Frank that policy should not be developed on the basis of the rare case; but there is no reason why stories cannot be reported.

We read about isolated stories in many other areas of journalism; a shark attack is reported but no one reports all the surfers that *weren't* attacked. Budget night stories invariably include cameos of the few who may be more significantly effected but ignore reporting on vast numbers who won't notice much difference overall.

In any case, a good reporter places stories and experiences in context.

Moira Byrne Garton | 27 June 2011  

Had Jo contacted us before posting, she'd have discovered several things, not the least of which is the reality that journalists are not banned from visiting immigration detention centres, nor on reporting about detainee clients. Many journalists do, regularly.

What journalists cannot do is record vision or audio during their visit, of detainees, as she correctly says, for their privacy's sake, as well as to ensure it does not give rise to a sur place claim.

In any event, as we've said to many other journalists who've contacted us - unlike Jo who did not - we are working up a media policy which will, if adopted, promote greater access to our immigration detention facilities/centres. Watch this space.

Sandi Logan DIAC | 27 June 2011  

It is fairly predictable that personal accounts and pix/video are banned - as the SBS docu showed last week, when people meet 1-on-1 empathy levels rise considerably.
For the same reason, I believe Christmas Is still has numbers for detainees, rather than using names.

By contrast, Maribyrnong detention centre only had 30 people in it when I was there last (most Kiwis and Poms who had overstayed their visas) and the staff were always warm, friendly and sympathetic. But cameras were still banned....

jane | 27 June 2011  

Oh, Sandi!

Jim Jones | 28 June 2011  

Thank you Sandi Logan for your corrections and new information re journalists' access to detained refugees / asylum seekers.

Could you now please respond to Marilyn's statement of the fraudulent modification of the Adelaide-born Afghan baby's birth certificate.

Or does DIAC justify this illegal and unconstitutional behaviour as a part of "defending our borders"?

Ian Fraser | 28 June 2011  

I'm interested to see what DIAC's revised policy will be. Sounds positive.

With regard to the stories of asylum seekers - journalists can report, but the point is that asylum seekers and detainees are significantly stymied in their ability to tell their *own* stories.

Moira Byrne Garton | 29 June 2011  

May I warn readers to be very sceptical about any statement made by Sandi Logan. He is the Department of Immigration's spot-fire put-er-outer. The department does not worry overly about sticking to the truth, (I know this from years of experience) and nor does Mr Logan - his speciality is spin.

That's why we need journalists in detention centres, and it's why we need to hear directly from asylum seekers - albeit with necessary protection for their safety as decided by themselves and their lawyers - not DIaC (who has other reasons for their stories to not be told!)

Helen | 29 June 2011  

Surely asylum seekers are able to give or refuse permission to have themselves videoed by journalists. Look at all those we saw on the series "Go back to where you came from." I believe the excuse for not permitting videos given by the Department that it is protecting the privacy of the asylum seekers is just a way of preventing the public from seeing the emotional state of asylum seekers and assessing the human situation for what it is - a cruel and unnecessary deprivation of their freedom for unlimited periods.

Tony Santospirito | 29 June 2011  

Spot on! Human beings have once again become political footballs. I can only hope that those within each Party with heart can disturb the parties enough to change the situation

Narelle Mullins | 01 July 2011  

I am every asylum seeker
I was born in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. I was born in Kashmir, between India and Pakistan. I was born in Iran. I was born in Iraq. I was born in Sri Lanka. I was born in Lahore, Pakistan.
? I worked as an architect, building up my business. I worked as a negotiator, liaising with the government. I worked as Volunteer. I worked as an accountant.
? I am a human rights activist. I am firm believer in woman's rights. I am a whistle-blower for government corruption.
? I am depressed and have constant headaches. I am frightened and wake up screaming. I am losing my mind. I have sewn my lips together. I have tried to kill myself.
? I didn't want to be a refugee. I didn't want to come to your country. I didn't want to leave my family. I didn't want to have to start again.
? I am not here to get rich. I am not here to receive charity. I am not here to steal your job. I am not here to cheat the system. I am not here by choice.
? I am here because otherwise I would be dead. I am here because the extremist, religious militia threatened to kill me and my family. I am here because I have nowhere else to go.
? I was born in a dangerous land. I was persecuted for who I am and what I believe. I was tortured in an interrogation room. I was on gunpoint.
? I am an asylum seeker, every asylum seeker, and this is my story. I am not a 'queue jumper'. I am not an 'illegal arrival'. I am not a 'political issue'.
? I am a human being. Please treat me like one.
An Asylum Seeker

The Twelfth Man | 01 July 2011  

Are conditions in Australia worse than they left behind? I so, patience is a virtue. Refugees and asylum seekers are given immediate benefits we would not be given in their countries. They are abusing the hand that feeds them. If conditions here are worse, best to go back to their origins. Australia does not want abusers of their way of life.

shirley McHugh | 01 July 2011  


these are the ones chosen to die based on an arbitrary date to break the law.

Marilyn | 01 July 2011  

I can only say that I welled up with tears when reading the comments from Shirley McHugh. How do we respond to the words of our national anthem: For those who’ve come across the seas, We’ve boundless plains to share;

Should we rewrite the anthem...I don't want it but am constantly disillusioned by those in public forums/newspapers/websites/ who think differently.

Marg | 02 July 2011  

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