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Manus Island: How information is kept 'under control'


The veil of secrecy on Manus Island has worrying implications for press freedom in Australia.

<i>Illustration: Kerrie Leishman</i>

Illustration: Kerrie Leishman

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.

Immigration Department official tries to block Fairfax photographing Lt General Angus Campbell as he visits the squalid ...

Immigration Department official tries to block Fairfax photographing Lt General Angus Campbell as he visits the squalid Manus Island Police station prison where six asylum seekers were locked up for 48 hours. Photo: Rory Callinan

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 kilometres 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.

Injured asylum seekers on Manus Island.

Injured asylum seekers on Manus Island. Photo: Nick Moir

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 – PNG 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.

Injured asylum seekers arrive at the hospital on Manus Island.

Injured asylum seekers arrive at the hospital on Manus Island. Photo: Nick Moir

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 Mr 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.


  • What the journalists should you investigating is the secret deals under-way by Tony Abbott that will result in Internet Censorship as part of the Trans-Pacific partnership

    Date and time
    February 25, 2014, 1:36PM
    • Matt. Do you realize that in 99.999999..% of UNHRC camps around the world the inmates do not behave like the ones which riot on Manus Island, Nauru, Christmas Island and many detention centers in Australia. Do you realize WHY? The answer is simply because the barracking by Greens and Left ALP for boatpeople have raised unreal expectations. I say this from personal experiences helping thousands of refugees many times more than the total of all the boatpeople in overseas locations and on Christmas Islands,

      Dr B S Goh
      Australian in Asia
      Date and time
      February 25, 2014, 3:36PM
    • Looks like it has already started Matt. Messages like yours have obviously been targeted and made into a jumbled, misspelled garbled mess. Be very afraid.

      Date and time
      February 25, 2014, 3:55PM
    • Matt you do realise that the TPP text were agreed upon by the previous government.

      Date and time
      February 25, 2014, 4:29PM
    • Well what do you expect from the lying LNP? They have lied about just about everything since they got into power and now are running roughshod on one of the principles of democracy - the freedom of the press. But then the lying LNP has form with destroying democracy bit by bit. Remember the Albert field affair?

      Date and time
      February 25, 2014, 4:29PM
    • Dr. B. S. Goh - it is unlikely that the guards at those camps crush the skulls or cut the throats of those inmates.

      It is very likely that, as the UNHCR has said, Australia's detention centres are way below acceptable practice.

      Date and time
      February 25, 2014, 4:32PM
    • Dr B S Goh. Get real and read a bit. They were told their chances of getting to PNG even were not good (as verified by an independent person who was there and broke her silence even though she was told not to). Wouldn't you be a bit upset if you were told you had better get back to where you came from. The trouble with all LNP trolls is they don't read enough and mouth off what the LNP tells them. This action in PNG is an absolute disgrace a blight on this country, and almost a crime against humanity that our forefathers have fought and died for.

      Date and time
      February 25, 2014, 4:40PM
    • Dr. Goh, Quite frankly I don't particularly care what 99.9999999% of UNHRC camps do around the world, however, I do care about what happens in our neck of the woods so to speak, and especially in camps that AUSTRALIA has set up, not the UNHRC. There is no valid argument for the attrocious way this Government has hidden, spun and lied to all Australians about this issue and about condicitons on manus Island. WE SHOULD BE ASHAMED.

      Matt Cater
      Dee Why
      Date and time
      February 25, 2014, 4:44PM
    • @Goh - they are in detention centres, not UNHCR camps; there is a massive difference between the two (I have worked in the latter). And please provide a reference for you absurb statistics in future, otherwise you might end up looking like an idiot....

      Date and time
      February 25, 2014, 4:53PM
    • Dr B S Goh, UN refugee camps don't trat refugees like prisoners, and lock them up with poor facilities, poor health care, poor sanitation etc. In fact, they don't lock them up. That would play a big part in the mental stability of those living in them.
      If you had fled to another country seeking help and safety, i'm sure you would not be happy when told you will be held in squalid conditions for 10 years.

      Our treatment of asylum seekers is disgraceful, and it's something all Australians should be ashamed about.

      Date and time
      February 25, 2014, 4:54PM

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