October 28, 2011 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Spurious media access to immigration detention centres

In the wake of a Sri Lankan refugee’s death at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney on 25 October, Reporters Without Borders strongly condemns the immigration minister’s draconian new rules for media access to such centres as an abusive restriction on news and information that is tantamount to censoring coverage of a matter of great public interest.

The Sri Lankan refugee was the seventh detainee to die at one of these centres this year.

“If these rules are applied, they would turn Australia’s immigration detention centres into the most impenetrable places in the world, on a level with Guantanamo,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said. “This control system for journalists, including the authorization process, the obligation to sign an agreement and the escort requirement, all seriously violate the right to information that is supposed to be guaranteed by the law.

Julliard added: “We urge immigration minister Chris Bowen to rescind these rules and allow journalists to be free to do their job. The government must recognize that these centres cannot become secrets places where human tragedies can take place with the public knowing. Access to immigrant detention centres is not just a problem for journalists in Australia. It is also restricted or banned in most European countries without this being specified in any laws or regulations. The conditions in which foreign citizens are held in detention centres are a matter of public interest.”

Under the rules published last week by the department of immigration, journalists who want to visit an immigration detention centre must sign a “deed of agreement” that regulates everything, including what the journalists can report, and establishes a system of prior approval of all photos, video and audio footage before they are published or broadcast.

Access request procedure

Under the agreement, journalists undertake to comply with all the rules set by the immigration department, They have to fill out forms in which they must identify not only themselves, the centre they want to visit, and the date of their visit, but also the nature of the media content they want to acquire and the equipment they intend to use.

They also have to undertake to give the immigration department a copy of any photograph, video or audio recording and they are not allowed to take phones, cameras, recorders or any “other items” with them unless specifically authorized in advance.

Failure to respect any of the undertakings listed on page 13 of the agreement can result in the temporary or permanent withdrawal of the permission that has been given to journalists or their media.

Restrictions on journalists inside the centre

For the most part, the rules forbid photographing, filming or recording migrants or “protected parties” on “protection of privacy” grounds. They do not refer to any possibility of a person being able to specify whether or not they want to be interviewed by a journalist. The term “protected party” is defined every broadly and includes the detention centre’s personnel as well as people who are visiting detainees.

Journalists are forbidden to interview or “engage in any substantive communication” with any detainee unless specifically authorized to do so by the immigration department. According to Point 5 on Page 4 of the agreement, any unauthorized media content must be destroyed.

Journalists who are allowed into a detention centre must be accompanied at all times by a representative of the centre (Point 7.2) and must remain in “close proximity” with the representative (7.2.a). They must also follow the representative’s instructions on what may or may not be filmed, photographed or recorded at any time (7.2.c).

Two underlying justifications are given for any restrictive decision that may be taken by the detention centre (7.3): “national interests” and the “privacy” of detainees and “protected parties.” The detention centre’s representatives are free to interpret this as they see fit. There are no guidelines and no provision for referring to an independent judge.

In the event of any disagreement, journalists have to destroy the relevant photos, video or audio recording on pain of expulsion from the centre.

At the end of the visit, the centre’s representative reviews all of the photos, video and audio recordings taken by the journalists to ensure that they comply with the rules (7.4). The detention centre has “absolute discretion” in determining whether or not they comply (7.4 d).