The United Nations has called what is happening on Manus Island a humanitarian emergency. Since the Australian government closed its controversial Papua New Guinea-based offshore immigration detention centre on October 31, over 400 men are refusing to leave.
They have gone nearly three weeks without water, food, electricity and medical supplies, and they claim that the facilities they are forced to move to lack adequate security to protect them from attacks by the local community.
Yet, this hasn’t become the media spectacle one might expect – only two reporters have been there to cover the story.
“The Australian government has tried very hard to shape the narrative about what is happening on Manus and Nauru, and it’s done so very effectively, because it’s so hard for journalists to be able to go there and to tell the stories of what is happening,” says Elaine Pearson, director, HRW Australia.
Media access to Manus and Nauru has been tightly controlled since the camps reopened in 2012 – and the Australian government is playing a blame game with the PNG and Nauruan authorities as to who is responsible. But journalists say they have no doubt Australia is pulling the strings.
Photojournalist Matthew Abbott tried to go to Manus Island last week, but was refused entry. A year earlier, he published a story on Manus locals brutally attacking two refugees.
When he tried to enter Papua New Guinea in the visa on arrival line the immigration officer said “are you involved with publishing disruptive material from Manus Island? That’s when I knew that there was no way I was getting to Papua New Guinea,” says Abbott.
According to Buzzfeed Australia’s senior reporter Paul Farrell, “there are real reasons to believe that there is a blacklist for Australian journalists. Australia certainly has a long history of stifling reporting on immigration detention centres.”
Journalists have come to rely on reports from refugees and whisteblowers to find out what is going on inside the detention centres.
For years, phones have been refugees’ lifelines – the only way to inform the world about their plight. They have shared stories of physical abuse, lack of medical facilities, mental stress, and in one case even murder at the hands of the security guards.
Amir Taghinia, one of the few who made it out of Manus set up ‘Manus Alert’, a public channel on the cloud-based app Telegram to which he and his fellow refugees upload footage and their stories.
It quickly became one of journalists’ main sources of information.
“If I didn’t smuggle that phone inside the centre, and I couldn’t get internet on that small, old smartphone, I
wouldn’t be in here,” says Taghinia, who spent four years on Manus but is now in Canada. “I did everything with that small phone … I think right now around 600 people are on that channel and the majority of them are Australians and journalists.”
Yet, despite sources such as Manus Alert, journalists are increasingly steering away from this story. Not least because Australian audiences have grown increasingly apathetic. Reporting on Manus and Nauru no longer gets the clicks, the likes, that too often drives the media’s agenda.
Typically, the images Australians are seeing are distant and limited. Taken from afar, they lack the faces and personal stories that tend to affect audiences. They fail to capture what’s happening up close.
And the few outlets the authorities in Canberra have allowed into the camp: The Australian newspaper and Sky – both owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp – and Channel 9, are known for sticking to the government’s line.
“I think privileged access is given to certain media and certain outlets that portray Australian policies in a certain light, the reporting that they’ve done has been very superficial,” explains Pearson. “It’s barely scratched the surface, it focused a lot on things like the physical facilities that the refugees and asylum seekers are living in, the physical standard of the accommodation, and saying that well, you know they’re living in nice houses, this is all being paid for by the Australian government so therefore you it’s a life all good on Nauru.”
Source: Al Jazeera