Backgrounder – By Rory Callinan, of The Age, Melbourne
I have seen some censorship in my 20-plus years as a journalist reporting from Australia and various countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
But what I saw on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea has made me uneasy about press freedom in the Pacific and the Australian government’s approach to reporting on the detention centre.
Last week photographer Nick Moir and I were on the island to report on the aftermath of the riot at the detention centre, which left one asylum seeker dead and about 70 injured.
Within hours of arriving, staff from G4S, the private security company employed by the Australian government to manage the centre, had manhandled Nick, confiscated his camera and forced him to delete photographs in order to censor news.
This occurred after Nick and I visited the island’s hospital more than 14 km from the detention centre and supposedly under the jurisdiction of the PNG government.
We had gone to the hospital in order to check if appropriate procedures were being taken in relation to secure the body of Reza Berati.
When we arrived at the hospital, we quickly established that G4S, whose staff are suspects in the death, were still in control of the body in the hospital morgue.
They had their own guards – Papua New Guinea nationals – posted all around the morgue and were controlling access – despite the fact the hospital has its own independent security personnel.
Later, as we were about to leave the hospital and were explaining to the G4S morgue guards that we were journalists, a G4S bus carrying several injured asylum seekers arrived in the carpark.
They appeared happy to be photographed but as soon as Nick started taking shots, the G4S staff pushed Nick up against a car and took his camera.
They refused to return it despite being asked to do so by an Australian G4S employee. They also said we could not leave and had to remain at the hospital until we spoke to their boss, who would attend shortly.
When their boss, a PNG national, arrived, he yelled at Nick, telling him that he should not be taking photos. He only agreed to hand back the camera after Nick had deleted the photographs in front of him – something he did quickly and we left.
Nick was later able to recover the photographs, which were published.
Later, reports surfaced that Nick had been arrested and detained. This was plainly wrong, as it is the police who have the powers to arrest and detain – not Australian taxpayer funded private security companies – or so you would think.
The next day I was the only member of the media present when the Australian government’s riot investigator, Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, arrived to see the cage that doubles as a jail cell at the Manus Island Police station – the same building where six asylum seekers were locked up with alleged murderers and rapists after the riots.
This time it wasn’t a security guard but an Australian taxpayer-funded Immigration Department official who intervened.
As Lt-Gen Campbell and the local police commander moved to inspect the cage, the Australian Immigration official physically tried to block me from entering the space to photograph and observe the visit.
Realising that I was ignoring him, the official scuttled over to the police commander and said words to the effect that I should not be allowed to take photos.
The police commander seized my camera and phone. Later, as I waited for their return, he physically prevented me from writing in my laptop. (It should be noted that Lt Gen Campbell approached me and said he had nothing to do with the seizure of the equipment but nor did he arrange its return).
I was only able to get the items back hours later after agreeing to delete all photos from the camera and the article on the laptop about the visit. I also had to listen to a lecture from the commander about how he controlled information on the island.
The photos and the article were recovered and published.
The following day it was the ABC’s turn.
The public broadcaster’s PNG correspondent, Liam Cochrane, did a piece to camera with the hospital in the background.
A short time later a carload of police arrived at his hotel and ordered him and the ABC’s cameraman to report to the police station. Cochrane did as asked and soon returned, saying he had been given another lecture that the police commander forbade any filming of the police station and the hospital without his permission. We joked about what would be left to film.
While all this poses something of a nuisance for Australian journalists and did not involve any severe physical violence, it represents a highly disturbing trend of censorship in a delicately poised third world country.
PNG, like many nations in the Pacific, has an enthusiastic and vibrant press but its journalists are already prone to dangerous threats and censorship.
Journalists in its highlands often get death threats or worse during election campaigns. Elsewhere others have been attacked for reporting on some of the serious crime and corruption that takes place in the country or have faced vexatious defamation claims directed at terrorising their editors into censoring critical copy.
Illegal logging is a major issue – and one of the country’s two newspapers has been owned by a controversial logging company.
Now PNG authorities are learning from Australians how to restrict the press.
Reporting about police is a serious business on Manus Island. It should be remembered that some of the Mobile Squad police (not the police commander) posted to the island are themselves suspects in the killing of Berati during the riot.
And that last year, officers from the same heavily armed unit beat to death a young Manus Island man in the main street.
The Australian Immigration official who sought PNG official involvement to restrict my reporting doesn’t have to worry about such scenarios or the long-term impact of his actions.
For the locals it’s a different story.
A free press is central to democracy in the Pacific and democracy in the region is vitally important to Australia. One only has to look to Fiji to see how badly things can go wrong.
Australian journalists grappling with a lack of information over boat arrivals is one thing. Restricting fair reporting on the ground is quite another matter.
Rory Callinan is a Fairfax Media Investigations reporter.
Source: Pacific Media Watch 8489