A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Different takes on how best to report on offshore detention

Increased media access to the offshore processing of asylum seekers could shift public perception about Australia’s role, according to high-profile journalists appearing at this year’s New News Conference, but they were divided about how best to report on the contentious issue.

Words by Jackson Graham
 
A drop in the ocean: Nauru, where visas issued to reporters are a rarity.

A drop in the ocean: Nauru, where visas issued to reporters are a rarity.

“I think the only way to investigate this issue is actually to speak to people, actually talk to them and get direct evidence of what people are experiencing,” said Chris Kenny, of The Australian.

“People need to see what’s going on in Nauru to be satisfied that Australia is not mistreating anybody in their name, because there are a lot of claims counter to that.”

Kenny, who visited Nauru in October 2015, was part of panel at the Wheeler Centre that discussed the challenges of reporting on Australia’s offshore processing of asylum seekers, and the grey areas around access to detention centres. He was joined by investigative journalist and activist Wendy Bacon and Guardian Australia journalist Paul Farrell.

Kenny, who is The Australian’s associate editor of national affairs, was the only journalist on the panel to have visited Nauru. Visas to travel to the island are regularly denied by the Nauruan government, with application costs having soared in recent years from $200 to $8000. Kenny’s visit was the first by a foreign journalist to the Pacific island nation in 18 months.

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“I figured, given my background [in media and politics], given my knowledge, given I was on the public record as not being antithetic to this particular policy, then I just might be able to get in,” Kenny noted.

But when Sky News journalist Jim Middleton, who chaired the session, questioned Kenny on how he obtained his visa, Kenny declined to go into detail.

“I spoke to people in diplomacy in the Nauruan government, in the Australian government,” Kenny said. “My only concern would [have been] that if there was any restrictions or conditions on my arrival, and there was none of that.”  

Bacon and Farrell said their visa applications had been turned down, or ignored by the Nauru.

“I couldn’t even get past first base,” said Bacon, who was involved in a crowdfunding campaign in October, 2015 that sought to cover the costs of a visa for her and a colleague. However, she was unable to get the visa.

“I was sending emails; no replies. It was like there was no one on the other end at all.” 

Bacon said she had instead co-authored a research paper into the protection of women who had been resettled on Nauru.

“In this situation, where I couldn’t personally go there, I still had an obligation to do what I could and believe I still do have an obligation,” she said.

Farrell, who was involved in a Guardian investigation that led to the leak of more than 2000 incident reports, the ‘Nauru files’, said gaining access to information were daily challenges of reporting on offshore processing and immigration.

“As a consequence, information needs to be spirited out in a whole range of different ways, from whistleblowers and confidential sources.

“Where I would question is what The Guardian and others did with those Nauru files . . . suggesting that somehow they prove some sort of systemic abuse or cultural of violence on Nauru.” — Chris Kenny, The Australian

“If you are not a friend of the government, or a proponent of Australia’s border protection policy, that is the reality that a lot of journalists face.”

He said the Australian Federal Police had examined his stories, while Nauruan authorities had used search warrants in an attempt to track down his sources on Nauru.

“I think it is immensely damaging to the Australian public, fundamentally because it is so much more difficult [for journalists] to dispel rumours and [separate] fact from fiction,” Farrell added.

He cited as alarming the over-representation of children, who made up around 17 per cent of the population in offshore processing on Nauru, but were involved in 60 per cent of the incident reports that were handed to The Guardian.

“This is the guards, the teachers, the child protection workers, all of those people . . .  This was their testimony and, certainly, in many cases you would have them directly eye-witnessing the assaults.

“What [the reports] also show is some very severe structural flaws in the management of that detention system.”

Kenny, whose comments were met often with objections and gasps from the audience, described the Nauru files as “a fantastic get as a journalist”, but not a reflection of the daily experiences that he had seen of asylum seekers and refugees living on Nauru. 

“Where I would question is what The Guardian and others did with those Nauru files . . . suggesting that somehow they prove some sort of systemic abuse or cultural of violence on Nauru.”

He said he believed that the refugee and asylum seeker children on Nauru were the least troubled of those living on the island.

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“They have access to schools, they are living with their parents, they are living in a beautiful climate,” he said. “The people who I am most concerned about on Nauru are the parents and the young adults who are facing incredible torment about the limbo they are stuck in.”

Bacon said that she believed Kenny, who had spent four days reporting on the island, lacked the experience and the perspective to do the job that was required when he was there.  

She said that if she had been granted access to the island, she would have prepared by building trust with case workers, nurses and the lawyers of women with whom she had planned to speak.

Kenny responded, heatedly: “You’re an activist. Me, I went there and saw what I could see.”

Bacon pointed out that Kenny had also admitted to qualities of activism in supporting the government’s position. She said she had become convinced that women had been abused, and sexually abused, on Nauru.

“I will be an activist from that point of view,” Bacon said. 

She added that the Australian and Nauruan governments’ control over information was not just a problem in Australian offshore detention centres.

“It’s actually our detention centres in general. It’s been extremely hard for many years to get access to them,” she said.

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