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Australian Press Council Statement Woomera Arrests

Australian Press Council Statement On Restrictions Over Access To Asylum Seekers

[NOTE: In view of PMW item 3500 and the MEAA protest over the arrest of an ABC journalist at Woomera Detention Centre on 26 January 2002, and restrictions on media covering asylum seekers, the Australian Press Council draws our attention to the following media release. This has wider relevance to the Pacific as the Australian government tries to restrict access to asylum seekers housed on various Pacific Islands at Australian expense. - PMW]

Australian Press Council General Press Release No. 249 (November 2001)

RESTRICTIONS ON ACCESS TO ASYLUM SEEKERS

The Australian Press Council is very concerned about the restrictions on media access to, and reporting of events surrounding, asylum seekers.

The Chairman of the Press Council, Professor Ken McKinnon, said today that the Council unanimously deplored these restrictions:

"As the Prime Minister, John Howard, has often said, a free press is crucial to the proper functioning of democracy. It is of grave concern, therefore, that his 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."

Journalists are routinely denied access to people who come to Australia as asylum seekers. The immigration detention centres at Port Hedland, Woomera, Villawood in Sydney and Maribyrnong in Melbourne follow the same exclusion procedures as high-security prisons, and this policy is also being applied in the camps being constructed on Nauru and other Pacific islands.

Journalists are reliant largely on official government sources for information on the detention centres and their inmates, and for information about the detection and interception of boats containing asylum seekers.

"The Government argues that the ban on speaking to asylum seekers is for the protection of the asylum seekers themselves: they may face reprisals if they return to their home countries, or their families may be threatened," Professor McKinnon added. "This risk should not be ignored by journalists, but it is possible to report an interview without identifying the person or persons being interviewed. And in any case, the asylum seekers themselves are surely the best judges of whether they or their families will be endangered if they speak out."

In the Council's view, the real issue is the right of the Australian people to know what their government is doing in their name. This right to know is effectively denied by the interview ban and other restrictions, because reporters have no means of verifying the information the government provides to them.

"While the government refuses to allow journalists to speak to asylum seekers, accusations of media manipulation will continue to be made," Professor McKinnon concluded.

* * * * *

Attached are some comments from journalists and editors on the restrictions on access to asylum seekers.

* * * * * Tony Vermeer (Editor in chief, AAP): "AAP has tried to gain access to asylum seekers in Australia and at overseas camps but has been prevented from doing so by officials.

"At Woomera our journalist, as a condition of entry, was required by the Immigration Department to sign an agreement not to approach the camp occupants.

"A similar reason was given by Papua New Guinea officials who denied our journalist access to boat people taken to the island of Manus. PNG officials told us that they wanted to allow reporters to talk to the boat people - but had been told not to do so by Australia.

"In both cases, the reporters believed there were asylum seekers who wished to speak to the media. They felt that the restrictions were designed to silence the asylum seekers and prevent them from airing their complaints and telling their stories.

"As In the case of the boat people, there is no justification for restricting access to people who wish to talk. They have committed no crime and are pursuing their legal rights to be accepted as refugees."

Karen Porter (The Advertiser, Adelaide): "The Advertiser has applied to get into Woomera detention centre to speak to detainees and photograph the centre on several occasions. At the time it was opened, chief of staff Paul Starick covered the story and was allowed in once for a tour. The Advertiser also was allowed access after the Woomera breakout last year.

"At no time have Advertiser journalists been allowed to speak to detainees or identify them in pictures.

"The information flow from Woomera is tightly controlled, with the only source being Mr Ruddock's office.

"As a paper, we are always seeking greater access to ensure the whole story is told. The Tampa issue highlighted this point."

Nick Papps (Sunday Herald Sun): "I sought access to the asylum seekers in Nauru, and had access to them. Though not allowed to enter the detention facility, we had access to them through the fence. My understanding is that this access was allowed by the Government of Nauru, not the Australian Government.

"My understanding is that the Australian Government has a general ban on all access to asylum seekers. Generally the only way to get information from the detention centres is through representatives of the ethnic groups in those detention facilities.

"We do need access because otherwise all information is through the Federal Government which is obviously censored."

John Flint (Sunday Times, Perth): "During my brief stay on Christmas Island I was repeatedly denied access to asylum seekers being accommodated in the sports hall and just outside the sports hall. On several occasions when I was attempting to communicate with asylum seekers I was moved on by Australian Correctional Management (ACM) managers, even though I was standing in a public place and had not crossed the cordon into the camp.

"Journalists were told that there was a media liaison officer for the Immigration Department somewhere on the island, but no journalist was able to locate the 'media officer' and it became a bit of a standing joke as to where that official was hiding."

+++niuswire

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PACIFIC MEDIA WATCH is an independent, non-profit, non-government organisation comprising journalists, lawyers, editors and other media workers, dedicated to examining issues of ethics, accountability, censorship, media freedom and media ownership in the Pacific region. Launched in October 1996, it has links with the Journalism Program at the University of the South Pacific, Bushfire Media, the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, and Pactok Communications, in Sydney and Port Moresby.

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