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Kicking at the cornerstone of democracy The State of Press Freedom in Australia 2012

The detention span The government has introduced restrictive new guidelines governing journalists’ access to detention centres. Walkley Award winner Nigel Hopkins argues they are unnecessary It is a little disconcerting for a journalist to find a story he’s written being used by opposing parties to support their individual positions, but that’s what’s happened with my story about the Inverbrackie Detention Facility, which appeared in the winter 2011 edition of the Adelaide Hills Magazine. More unusually, perhaps, both sides are right. The issue is the way in which the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) seeks to control media access to Australia’s detention centres. Its tool is a 19-page Deed of Agreement that imposes a set of legal obligations on the media. The story I wrote was not subject to any such agreement. Nor would there have been any penalties had I written a story that did not comply with DIAC’s regard for the privacy of asylum seekers. To that extent, it supports the Media Alliance’s contention that the story was “a perfect example of the way in which a relationship of trust between journalist and the authorities is far preferable to the position of censorship that DIAC is now seeking to impose”. DIAC’s national communications manager, Sandi Logan, agreed: “I want to thank you for keeping at us about your intent; your trust and word were key”, he emailed after the Walkley Award presentation. But Logan is also right when he argues that allowing the Adelaide Hills Magazine access to Inverbrackie shows DIAC’s desire to open up access to the detention centres, albeit through a more formalised and extensive deed of agreement. Let’s go back to the beginning. I live in the Adelaide Hills, some 45km away from the Inverbrackie facility at Woodside. The Adelaide Hills is a fairly loose-limbed community but I’m part of it and I was dismayed, in fact shocked, by the response of some people when the relocation of asylum seekers to Inverbrackie was announced. It would have been easy to portray them as red-necked racists, but more than anything they were fearful. They hadn’t been consulted by DIAC or any other government agency and they’d been given very little information. It was a classic instance of a government “announce and defend” policy, with predictable public resistance. Instead, I formed the view that they were ill-informed, unworldly – in that they had no idea about the nature of refugees or the circumstances that had led them to such a desperate situation – and most dismaying of all, that they were ungenerous. This was so unlike the response given to the displaced persons housed at Inverbrackie after World War II. Back then, the local community couldn’t do enough to make them feel welcome. I wanted to write a piece showing the human side of Inverbrackie and its refugee residents, and hopefully allay some of the community’s fear, but to do that I had to go inside Inverbrackie. Unfortunately the government’s position was that unauthorised media access was now rated as a “critical incident” alongside “the use of chemical and biological weapons”. Though that seemed laughable I decided I’d rather enter through the front door as a journalist than adopt some subterfuge as a humanitarian visitor. Instead of going to DIAC’s public relations people I directly approached Steve Johnson, DIAC’s regional manager of Detention Operations and deputy state director in South Australia, and explained what I wanted to do. I did this because it was Johnson who had to deal with the mess – and it was Johnson who would most want community tensions eased. That was on February 3, 2011. I told him I understood he’d have to pass my request on to DIAC’s PR people, but I wanted him to do so with a recommendation that I be allowed access. “I think many of us would agree that an urgent goal in gaining community acceptance of the Inverbrackie refugees is that they are ‘humanised’ – not seen as queue jumpers or economic refugees, or even criminals, but (for the most part) as ordinary people who through extraordinary circumstances find themselves in this situation,” I wrote. I explained that the story would appear in the Adelaide Hills Magazine, which circulated directly to the community most concerned about Inverbrackie. I had absolute assurance from both the magazine’s proprietor and editor that we would not sensationalise the story, and that we’d respect DIAC’s concerns regarding privacy and non-identification of individuals. The fact that I have on occasions worked in a government communications role, as well as in newspapers, probably helped me empathise with the very defensive bureaucratic response I encountered. Having passed one deadline and still waiting on approval from DIAC, we decided on May 25 to press on with the story regardless, without Inverbrackie access. We conveyed this

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2012 Press Freedom Report  

The Annual Media Alliance summary of press freedom issues in Australia