On Wednesday while listening to ABC News Radio, I heard Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop: “Manus island is open and free.” I did a double take. It was one of those radio smashing moments when you are overwhelmed by the enormity of the lie.

It reminded me of Josef Goebbels. If you repeat the lie enough people will believe it. Manus Island is not open and free. That is an undisputable fact.

Journalists who are not employed by sympathetic outlets to the Australian government, such as News Corp, cannot visit the island. For the past month I have been dealing with the PNG embassy in Canberra, the embassy in Port Moresby and then made attempts to contact the office of the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea himself, to get a visa to legally visit Manus Island as a journalist. The result? Unanswered calls, emails with no response, and when finally getting through being told to just wait. It was just like dealing with the Indonesians after writing about their crackdown on the West Papuan independence movement in 2002. They never say no to your visa request — they just put you off until you go away.

Ever since the PNG Supreme court declared the Australian-run detention centre on Manus island illegal I have been trying to get a visa to go there, officially, through the front door as a journalist. I am too old to go sneaking around posing as a tourist, and besides I’d probably be arrested and possibly be detained for trying. I really don’t want to be a subject of “banged up abroad” in PNG. That would be just boring. However I think it is really important, as a journalist, to check these claims by the Australian government that as Bishop said yesterday that the 900 or so detainees on Manus Island were “open and free”.

As a journalist it seems you are allowed to visit Manus Island if you are prepared to write stories about how privileged the detainees now are. The series of stories written by News Corp reporter Peter Michael is a case in point. He went to Manus and “broke” the shocking exclusive that Manus Island detainees were taking advantage of their new freedom to go into the small town for a few hours by trading in cigarettes with the locals. The original article was accompanied by photos of buff asylum seekers in the local market, taken at a distance and looking suitably menacing. There was no reference that he had actually talked to any asylum seekers. He just wrote about how they were abusing their “freedom” by trading Australian taxpayer-supplied smokes with the locals.  Note the implied outrage. Not only do the asylum seekers seem to be fit they are making money off your tax paid for ciggies. Thanks to his “daring” expose the asylum seekers in detention got their ration taken away.

Yes that is the kind of journalism you have to practice to visit Manus Island, it seems. For independent journalists, NGOs and humanitarian workers who seek to document and maybe help those in indefinite detention it is very hard to actually get permission to visit Manus Island. But if you are a News Corp journalist prepared to write about how sneaky, nasty and threatening the asylum seekers detained there are, it seems easy to get permission. Like the recent report from Australia’s other tropical gulag, Nauru.

But the detainees on Manus are not free, as Bishop claims. Aside from going into the local town on a government provided bus for a few hours and then back to spend the night in detention, nothing has changed. It is a diplomatic sidestep to the PNG governments ruling that the detention centre is illegal under international law. They are not free. They cannot work or leave the island to anywhere but Cambodia, where Australia has spent $55 million to resettle one refugee, who apparently hates it.

It is a farce of massive proportions and for the media, those that are not prepared to act as public relation arms of Australia’s Department of Trade and Foreign Affairs, a farce that can only be reported from a distance.

I have seen this before, in East Timor in the 1990s, when Indonesia was killing people and saying it was not happening. Journalists were either banned or heavily monitored. To report on the conflict you had to basically go undercover and pretend to be a tourist. Then in Aceh, when foreign journalists were rounded up and in some cases arrested when martial law was declared in 2003. And now, not too far from Manus Island, just along the coast, in West Papua, where foreign media are technically allowed in, but really rarely get permission, and when they do get there, they can’t do very much because everybody they talk to will probably be interrogated by the Indonesian security services after they leave. So perhaps all that joint Indonesian Australian military co-operation has worked both ways. Our government and diplomats have learnt from the Indonesians how to muzzle the press while still maintaining the fiction we are “free and open”.

The Australian’s Paul Kelly quoted former prime minister John Howard in his 2009 book The March of Patriots as saying Howard’s greatest achievement was the liberation of East Timor in 1999. Now, on Manus and Nauru, the Australian government is employing the very same techniques of media control that Indonesia used for 24 years to hide their atrocities against the East Timorese since 1975. But now we do it, and it is OK. Just ask Julie Bishop.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey