The attempt by authorities to move the media back several hundred more metres from the perimeter fence of the Woomera detention centre was more to do with protecting the Government from adverse publicity than protecting detainees’ safety. Apparently the Australian Protective Service made the decision to move the media back from positions they had occupied for several weeks without apparent safety concerns. The APS apparently made the decision after a security review and it had nothing to do with the Department of Immigration. If so it is a convenient thing for the Government, but it will inevitably backfire, as has the decision to house asylum seekers in the distant outback town of Woomera (and other outback places) in the first place. Refugee support groups, lawyers, air agencies and the media have managed to travel to Woomera and to give help and report events despite the Government’s best attempts to keep the detainees and the conditions they are living in out of the public eye.
In any event, it is ridiculous for Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock to pretend that the APS’s decision is one out of the Government’s purview. Ultimately the Government is responsible for access to the centres and to the Commonwealth land that surrounds them.
The justification for the moving back of the media was that their presence was endangering detainees on two levels. One the that detainees were more willing to undertake self-harm if there was an audience. The second was put by Mr Ruddock yesterday as stemming from the fact that the centres contained two sorts of detainees: those awaiting assessment and those who had been assessed and refused refugees status and were awaiting deportation. It was important that the privacy and identity of those making asylum claims was protected, he said. Some had relatives back home who might suffer through publicity – presumably because the regime back home would not like adverse publicity. Some might have their refugee application prejudiced because any incident generated by the refugee while in Australia himself does not count in the assessment of fear of persecution – a media presence might abet that.
The justifications are absurd and are mere smokescreens to hide the desire by the Government and the centre’s managements to hide from the Australian people what is going on in the centres.
Every time a further outrage against standard principles of human rights and liberal democracy – this time an assault on freedom of the press – Mr Ruddock and other government ministers and spokespeople engage in artful mental gymnastics in an attempt to justify the unjustifiable.
If it is not the fear of terrorists, criminals and disease, it is the fear that unless we imprison children other children will be sent by people smugglers as a Trojan horse. If it is not the smear that lip sewing is culturally based, it is the fear of sending the wrong message to people smugglers. And so it goes on.
In the meantime some 50,000 white, English-as-a-first language New Zealanders, Americans and Canadians are not hunted down and put into remote detention centres.
At the weekend, one journalist was arrested for doing her job of reporting the important events in Woomera to the Australian people. We can only hope that she manages to mount a successful challenge on the basis on breaching the constitutional right to freedom of communication. The Government’s increasing illiberalism requires some checks and balances. A free media is an essential bulwark against government abuse of power.