Why Australian government fears hearing, seeing and feeling the reality of asylum seekers

Despite the “best” efforts of the Australian government and Serco, refugees are treated with a combination of suspicion and punishment.

Here’s a good piece in yesterday’s Australian by Paige Taylor which outlines the reality of the attitude towards the media by the political and bureaucratic establishment:

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship objects to the identification of asylum-seekers for a range of reasons that it has outlined repeatedly since it launched a controversial new media policy in October.

For the first time, the department is allowing media outlets into detention facilities, but on the proviso the journalist and camera operator or photographer accompany a department official, follow the official’s instructions at all times and hand over images for vetting before publication.

The department is also putting pressure on media watchdogs to rein in media outlets that continue to show the faces of asylum-seekers. It has written to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which sets standards for the telecommunications, broadcasting, radio and online media, urging it to use new privacy guidelines to crack down on the use of footage of asylum-seekers. The Immigration Department considers many of the images broadcast of asylum-seekers to be gratuitous and unjustified.

The broadcasting watchdog has posted the privacy guidelines on its website and concedes they could be used to force television stations to blur the faces of asylum-seekers. The Immigration Department says it may use the guidelines, which create a protection of “seclusion” even in a public place, to pressure broadcasters to do just that.

The department also has its sights on newspapers’ use of images of asylum-seekers. An Immigration Department spokeswoman confirmed yesterday that it was considering a similar submission on restricted use of images to the Australian Press Council.

The debate has drawn in refugee advocates, human rights lawyers and media bosses. Opinions are not black and white. Even those who believe some sections of the media have misused images of asylum-seekers have acknowledged that, in the right context, such images can promote understanding and empathy.

The West Australian’s editor-in-chief Bob Cronin told the federal government’s media inquiry last month that the Immigration Department’s access terms were so outrageous that “no editor worth two bob would agree”.

Even human rights lawyers with stated concerns about detainees’ privacy have acknowledged the benefits of media coverage sometimes outweigh the risks.

Sydney solicitor George Newhouse of Shine Lawyers, who took up Seena’s case last year, says asylum-seekers should be, and are, entitled to the same rights to privacy as any other person.

“I’m not criticising The Australian in any way. Ironically, the reporting has probably helped a lot of asylum-seekers on Christmas Island,” he says.

“Some (asylum-seekers) will want their images to appear in the media and others won’t.

“The critical issue is to obtain the relevant asylum-seeker’s informed consent.

“What is disingenuous about DIAC’s concern about the personal privacy of detainees is that the department, Customs and (DIAC’s contractor) SERCO make it difficult, if not impossible, for the media to contact asylum-seekers. That approach means that the department, Customs and SERCO are effectively censoring all images of detainees by denying them the ability to consent.”

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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