There has been a dust-up in the past few months about an attempt by the Department of Immigration to force media organisations to give bureaucrats the right to edit their reports in return for access to detention centres. Now, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance is about to launch a petition opposing the deed as part of a public campaign to support reporting from inside immigration detention centres.

The department has insisted that media wanting access to the centres sign a “deed of agreement” that prevents media organisations from interviewing or identifying any inmate and gives the bureaucrats the power to force pixilation of images and muting of audio.

It is a two-sided story. On the one hand, the department claims to be trying to get more journalists into detention centres, and there has been a recent rash of stories from inside the centres, which would seem to suggest that some media organisations are signing the obnoxious deed.

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Yet who could be happy with clauses that effectively give bureaucrats control over which images and audio go to air? There are good reasons for the privacy of vulnerable asylum seekers to be protected.

But at the same time, the department is a fitting subject of scrutiny, some asylum seekers actively want to tell their stories to the media, and no editor worth his or her salt could be happy about giving government control over the editing process.

The Australian reports some journo’s criticisms of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance action, or perceived lack thereof, on this issue. The union got a brief comment at the bottom.

But this was not the whole of its response. We publish the Alliances’ full statement to the allegations it has been inactive below:

  1. In emails between yourself and Wendy Carlisle last July, you discussed a campaign against the regulations. Why was this campaign dropped? It has not been dropped — it is very much a live issue for the Media Alliance. We have been on the front foot with this: Chris Warren has been on radio and quoted in The Australian several times in the past week. We have been clear that the DIAC deed of agreement is not acceptable. We are presently talking with about a petition against the deed which will be part of a public campaign that we expect will attract a huge amount of support. The next issue of The Walkley Magazine will carry a story by Walkley Award-winning journalist Nigel Hopkins, whose piece from Inverbrackie illustrates perfectly that rather than censoring journalists, the department should be developing relationships of trust with reporters and allowing them to tell the stories of individual asylum seekers.  We are also talking with our colleagues on the Right to Know group about other ways of ensuring these restrictions do not stand.
  2. Did the MEAA attempt to negotiate with the Department of Immigration or the offices of Ministers Chris Bowen and Brendan O’Connor to allow journalists to make submissions before the regulations were issued. If not why not? We held separate meetings with Chris Bowen and Brendan O’Connor, with Bowen about the deed of agreement and with O’Connor about footage of boat arrivals. Minister Bowen agreed to include the Alliance in its consultation process for the draft deed of agreement. We were sent a confidentiality agreement which we were required to sign before being sent the draft deed — which I signed on behalf of the Alliance. This agreement meant we were not allowed to consult widely but must confine our consultation to members of the MEAA executive. We honoured this, but were able to consult with exec members of the Alliance with expertise in relevant areas. We then made a detailed, line-by-line submission rejecting the deed almost in its entirety. I attach a copy of the submission (we communicated this to members via the e-bulletin at the time). The submission was sent at the beginning of September.
  3. Were journalists consulted in the MEAA’s submission? See above — and see the submission for instances of us quoting members’ concerns in the submission.
  4. The Department of Immigration claims it consulted journalists? Can you confirm this? This is not for me to say — DIAC’s spokesman, Sandi Logan, tells me he and the department consulted with about a dozen “journalists and academics”. In the end we were also consulted.
  5. What is the MEAA’s response to claims it has failed to represent the interests of journalists in this matter? These claims are misinformed, as you can see from the above answers. We remain unhappy at the attempts by the department to prevent journalists from access to detention centres and asylum seekers. We believe it is a matter of great public interest that their stories are told. we will continue to campaign for improved access to detention centres and will be happy to work with any journalists who are as concerned as we are at this attempt to restrict press freedom in this area. The Alliance has consistently demonstrated its wholehearted commitment to freedom of the press in Australia. Before the Right to  Know Coalition was formed we were the only large group advocating legal reforms to protect free speech in Australia. Our annual press freedom report, which you can read here is the most comprehensive rundown of legal developments in these areas (this year’s will carry a digest of developments in the asylum seekers campaign).

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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