Offshore detention is central to Nauru’s move against press freedom

By Gary Dickson | 10 Jul 18

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will fly to Nauru in September for the Pacific Islands Forum and the ABC won’t be there to cover it. The host country banned the national broadcaster and gave a laundry list of reasons for doing so: interference in Nauru’s domestic politics, harassment of the President while he was in Australia, defamatory allegations against members of parliament, biased reporting.

It’s an attack on the principles of a free press by a country that has been falling short.

Reaction at home was swift. In solidarity with the ABC, the Canberra Press Gallery announced a boycott of the trip. “We stand for a free press, not a banned one,” president David Crowe wrote in a statement. Fairfax and the Australian Associated Press also support the move. News Corporation, on the other hand, will attend.

The ABC has received international support too. The Pacific Island News Association called on Nauru to reverse the decision, and the International Federation of Journalists called it a “terrible signal” about the state of press freedom in the country. The New Zealand Press Gallery condemned the move and Vanuatu’s Daily Post has cancelled plans to cover the forum.

“This isn’t a self-righteous, moralising action”, wrote the Post’s media director Dan McGarry. “It’s a survival tactic. If we allow ourselves to get into a situation where our ability to report is predicated on how positive our coverage is, then we can’t do our job.”

The press freedom situation in Nauru has deteriorated rapidly over the last half-decade.

The Lowy Institute, in a special report on governance in Pacific states this year, wrote that Nauru has “recently lurched towards authoritarianism”, and that its stability has come through a crackdown on political opposition, public demonstration and freedom of speech.

“Offshore detention is central to this whole affair and both governments work hard to prevent outside scrutiny of this immoral arrangement.”

Freedom House agrees. In 2014 the country dropped from “Free” to “Partly Free” in its annual assessment of press freedom. It has slid further each year, due to laws restricting speech and the government’s willingness to censor both journalists and social media.

In May 2013, former president Sprent Dabwido banned the island’s broadcast media from reporting politics two weeks before a national election. The winner of that race, current president Baron Waqa, shut down access to Facebook in 2015. The site wasn’t restored on the island until January this year.

When updating its Crimes Act in 2016, Nauru elected to preserve defamation as a criminal offence and increased the maximum jail term to three years. New contempt laws, which came into effect in May, significantly restrict the ability of people to comment on cases before the courts. Dabwido, who was charged for his role in an anti-government rally in 2015, seems to be a target of the new law.

The Waqa government has had a contentious relationship with Australian news media, and the ABC in particular.

In 2014 Magistrate Peter Law and Chief Justice Geoffrey Eames were barred from Nauru in what opposition MPs told Pacific Beat amounted to a political attack and abuse of the rule of law. They were suspended from parliament for “talking too much to foreign media”.

A year later the broadcaster reported allegations that the president and justice minister David Adeang took bribes from Australian phosphate dealer Getax. Both men have denied the allegations and accused the reporters of “conspiring to destabilise the government”. In June the ABC apologised to Adeang for a separate Lateline report that incorrectly suggested he was responsible for his wife’s death.

Nauru’s strengthening of executive power, the Lowy report says, comes “in the knowledge that criticism from Canberra will be low-key at most”. The Australian Prime Minister’s weak defence of the national broadcaster – he said it would be “regrettable” if the ABC weren’t present – confirms this.

“It is up to Nauru who comes into their country,” Malcolm Turnbull said, “just as it’s up to our government … as to who comes to Australia.” The Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton made similar remarks.

In another context we might expect the Australian government to take a stronger public position on behalf of a fundamental principle of democracy and Western civilisation such as press freedom.

Instead, both men default to an argument that, tellingly, is also used as the justification to strip asylum seekers of their rights. Offshore detention is central to this whole affair and both governments work hard to prevent outside scrutiny of this immoral arrangement. Denying journalists (and aid workers, members of parliament and independent observers) access to information is mutually beneficial.

In January 2014, in response to increasing numbers of journalists heading to the reopened centre, the government of Nauru increased the cost of a media visa from $200 to a non-refundable $8,000. The country then denied all visa requests until October 2015, when The Australian’s associate editor Chris Kenny went to interview Somali asylum seeker and alleged rape victim Abyan. At the time a News Corporation spokesperson refused to comment on whether the company had paid the visa fee. In 2016 crews from A Current Affair and Sky News were also given access. Sky reporter Laura Jayes tweeted this week that officials “would openly admit the fee was to deter the ABC and Guardian” and that hers was waived.

The animosity toward The Guardian has led to that publication also not receiving accreditation to cover the Pacific Islands Forum. In 2015 Paul Farrell and Ben Doherty reported, based on leaked emails, that the Nauruan government was permitting local media into the detention centre – the first access for any media in over 12 months at that point – in order to “reinstate balance to the story”. In response, police twice raided the local offices of NGO Save the Children in an attempt to find the source of the leaks.

Visas for approved media outlets to cover the Pacific Islands Forum have not yet been issued, so the conditions of entry are unknown. The government’s promise to revoke the visa of anybody who does not respect the “unique security and safety issues” of Nauru suggests that reporters will be limited in what they can do.

Australia has also been active in closing down access to information about asylum seekers. The Border Force Act 2015 imposes harsh penalties on people inside the system who speak out. Employees or contractors of the government who try to blow the whistle on wrongdoing in the detention centres face up to two years in prison.

At the time of the raids on Save the Children, justice minister Adeang said that Australian media has no respect for Nauruan culture, and that his government has no obligation to be accountable to the foreign press.

“The Australian media approaches us with great arrogance and an air of racial superiority, which is highly offensive to us,” he said.

The ban isn’t about ethics in broadcast journalism, but he has a point. Australia’s relationship with Nauru (and the broader Pacific) is rooted in colonialism and economic exploitation. It is a place with its own history, culture, and concerns, but is rarely represented in our press as much more than a remote, client-state island prison. Unfortunately for Adeang, his best hope for deep coverage is the ABC and its Pacific Beat radio program.

Respect for the Nauruan people is important, and more nuanced reporting of their concerns is certainly desirable. But toward the Nauru government, Australian journalists owe nothing other than the same scepticism that they show at home. Treating the state with a soft touch would be a disservice.

Likewise, it is wrong to say that the Nauruan government has no responsibility toward Australian journalists. Press freedom isn’t limited by state sovereignty, at least in principle, and the detention arrangement requires accountability. Our government won’t demand that, but the public should.