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partook in a deceitful action. And journalists are not doing their job well enough to expose such deceits. “Australian journalists are lacking investigative nature of journalism,” he says, explaining that he has worked in 47 countries and with many media organisations over the world. “While the government started saying that those who are coming to seek protection they are illegal, they are queue jumpers, they are boat people, journalists should have taken the minimum courtesy to investigate those words instead of copying politicians.”

He sees the government’s attempts to isolate people seeking asylum illustrating a wider problem with the Australian media. “If you look into the broader context in this country, the immigration detention centres are controlled by the Department of Immigration and ACM. None of the media has the right to go inside the detention centres unimpeded to investigate the claims and facts, what’s happening, if there is even people dying inside the detention centre, the media is not allowed to go and report on those things. It violates press freedom.” He’s not alone in making this accusation. The Australian Press Council he says, also put out a media release stating that the Department of Immigration’s actions clearly violate freedom of speech. “The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance needs to speak out about these things,” he says. Every European country has freedom of speech, he says. Why is it not the case here? Why are the journalists not asking this question?

Dave Corlett has recently completed a PhD looking at how Australia has treated asylum seekers. He too believes that the Australian media has been uncritical in its coverage of the issue. The news media affect debates like this by what they choose to show. He points to the refugees from Kosovo as an example, where the Australian response was largely compassionate. Why the difference then? Corlett suggests it is partly because of the major media coverage of their plight. “Even Ruddock was slow to pick it up. He initially said they wouldn’t be coming to Australia. It wasn’t until Howard realised that talk-back radio was going ‘we’ve got to do something about this’ that Howard then rolled Ruddock to allow them to come.”

“For the community there was a point at which we could engage with these people in a way that we’ve been denied the opportunity to engage with Afghans and Iraqis.

“The media chose to show what was happening in Kosovo in a way they chose not to show what was happening in Rwanda for example. The media makes decisions about what they reckon is going to sell their advertising.”

Commercialism is a factor that worries others, not just in relation to the coverage of asylum seekers, but the restrictions on the media’s ability to speak out on a range of issues. The ABC’s Media Report which hosted a forum on this topic in August. Political commentator Mungo MacCallum lamented the sense of “propriety” creeping into the media. “The present government [uses] cover-all words like ‘national security’ and ‘operational matter’ … phrases that don’t really mean anything in themselves but which can be used just as a blanket form of censorship to tell the media to keep off this patch, and to their shame, I think a lot of the media actually do that these days.

© Helen Cronin 2002

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