What goes on behind the detention fence?

The government continues to frustrate access to media wanting to report on conditions in off-shore detention centres, writes Jeff Waters. Cartoon by Reg Lynch

I’d never really considered trying to get into one of Australia’s immigration holding centres until I went to Nauru in November last year. It wasn’t because I wouldn’t like to capture the human impact of the country’s domestic detention centres. No, the reason I hadn’t considered applying to enter a detention facility on Australian soil is because I considered it a quite futile effort. The regulations imposed on journalists wishing to enter these places preclude the recording of reality. I wouldn’t get those stories. What would be the point?

But then there was Nauru. When I was told about an impending visit there by an Amnesty International team – the first such inspection of the facility by an outside organisation – I contacted my editors and ended up on an overnight flight from Brisbane to the island. I would report on the Amnesty visit, but also try to get as close to, if not inside, the desolate detention centre.

Lynch_Asylum cartoon

Shortly before leaving I had called the communications team at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC). I asked what my chances were of getting inside the Nauru camp, and was left with the rather abrupt impression that such permission was unlikely to be forthcoming. But I knew there would be the small possibility of a loophole, and it would come in the form of the Nauruan government.

You see, this would be a place of detention that was administered by the host nation. Nauru would ultimately be responsible, under contract, for the actual processing of the asylum seekers, even though it only has a few practising lawyers on the island, let alone enough qualified immigration officials. Surely if the Nauruan government gave permission for an ABC visit, nothing could stop them from exercising their sovereign right to enforce free media access. At least that was the optimistic theory.

The plane landed at 8am local time. At 10, I was sitting in a session of the Nauru Supreme Court, which was very small but notable for its air-conditioning. The case, relating to the conviction of a collection of asylum seekers for rioting, was delayed for hours. The asylum seekers were refusing to leave their bus and enter the court because they weren’t happy with their legal representation. There are so few lawyers in this population of 10,000 that paralegal officers of the court, who are not qualified lawyers, are the only public legal court advocate available. The asylum seekers wanted a proper lawyer.

The stand-off ended after some time when a Nauruan lawyer volunteered to represent the men for their plea hearing. Most of the discussion with the judge centred on the apparently insurmountable difficulty of finding adequate representation for each individual. “Would they have to fly lawyers in from Australia?” I thought. It was a matter certainly not resolved.

The hearing didn’t end, however, until the judge had passed strict non-publication orders. None of the interviews I had recorded through the bus windows, or interactions I’d had with asylum seekers around the court, would be allowed to be broadcast for fear of “identifying individuals” who had clearly given their consent to be interviewed. It’s the same reason DIAC gives to prevent reporting of human stories, but this time it was being imposed by a court.

By this time I was also speaking to various detainees in the centre by telephone. I’d arranged to meet a few of them when they were allowed to leave the centre under escort to play football – the centre itself is far too small to allow such exercise – but they told me all excursions had been cancelled because of the number of visiting journalists on the island.

But a tiny chink in the armour soon emerged. Answering a question in a media briefing, Nauru’s foreign minister said media access to the camp would be allowed “within a week”. I had no reason to doubt the minister’s sincerity, but I knew the promise was highly unlikely to eventuate given my previous dealings with the Australian department. The statement did, however, give me a hook to start asking for permission formally, which I did with verve. My question to the Australians could now be: “What’s the hold-up with negotiations, given the Nauruan government’s apparent openness?”

Meanwhile the wet season skies had opened above the island and great quantities of water were gushing over the crushed coral ground of the detention centre. Water was flowing through tents, from above and below. I began to suspect the hold-up in permission may very well have had a seasonal cause, as much as anything else.

I went as close as I could, climbing a precarious hill to film the facility from a distance. I did so under climatic conditions as challenging as anything I’d worked in before, and that includes the Arctic, the Sahara and the Roaring Forties. How extraordinary it must be to endure such weather under canvas.

After my return to Australia, I decided to try a new tactic. In addition to writing to the Nauruan government and the Australian department directly, I would start asking in a more public manner, turning to one of DIAC’s favourite platforms – social media. At least our audience could see the ABC was attempting to show them how the prisoners were being treated, and how their tax dollars were being spent.

Initially DIAC’s responses over Twitter were polite, vague and non-specific. They centred on the lack of an agreement by the two governments over permission to film inside the facility. “These things take time,” was the general theme.

So I continued questioning. How could Australia negotiate to set up the camp itself in an extremely short time – convincing a sovereign government to set up a foreign detention facility on communally owned land – yet not sort out something so simple as ABC access? Was there a diplomatic impasse? Who was to blame?

After a few weeks of enjoyable Christmas holiday tweeting with a growing number of supporters, it appears I had grown too tiresome for the DIAC media team. “Give it a rest,” one of them publicly tweeted. This comment backfired badly, with many respondents complaining about the tone DIAC had adopted. But I didn’t “give it a rest”.

My efforts continued into the new year. I may not be allowed to show the world what Australia was doing – whether exemplary or deplorable – but I wouldn’t let my attempts go unnoticed.

DIAC still appears not to like my tweets. In one recent response, I was told negotiations were held up because these things are done in “Melanesian time”. I pointed out that not only was this racial stereotyping, but that Nauru was actually in Micronesia and that was an important distinction for people of that region.

Months down the track, the ABC appears no closer to securing permission to film inside the Nauru or Manus Island camps. Our written and verbal requests for entry to the detention centres have been met with open ended responses. “Media access protocols are currently being developed between the two governments,” said national communications manager Sandi Logan in a recent email. We continue to ask.

Jeff Waters is a senior journalist in Victoria with ABC News

It was originally published in the April 2013 edition of the Walkley Magazine and is being shared as part of the 30 Days of Press Freedom campaign which began on April 4 and continues until World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

The joint campaign by the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA), The Walkley Foundation for Journalism and the International Federation of Journalists Asia-Pacific, calls media colleagues, friends and supporters to help raise awareness of press freedom issues in the Asia-Pacific region.

Follow the 30 Days of Press Freedom campaign on Facebook and on Twitter via the #30DaysofPressFreedom hashtag.