The press arrives at Nauru


The BBC has become the first news organisation to be granted access to the reopened detention facility at Nauru. Far from signifying a shift in policy, however, the arrival of the press at the site shows the government’s determination to legitimise and maintain the current system of indefinite offshore detention of asylum seekers.

In his report from Nauru, the BBC’s Nick Bryant offers a strong condemnation of the resurrection of the ‘Pacific Solution’, describing it as ‘born of political weakness’. Splicing footage shot during his visit with earlier, secret footage of a protest at the camp, Bryant notes the recent upgrades in detainee living conditions, but nonetheless concludes that with regard to refugee policy, ‘the embattled Labor government is itself, all at sea.’

What is in it for the government, then? Why let the media in, if doing so is only going to lead to bad press?

Images leak out of even the highest-security settings. A total media ban is difficult to enforce, and damaging once broken – look at the scandal caused by leaked photos of detainee treatment at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. Allowing the media in, but carefully orchestrating the journalists’ experience, is a more effective way of shaping public perception of the site.

It’s not Bryant’s conclusions that are of concern to the government; rather the very presence of the media at the Nauru facility creates another narrative, one in which the government can position itself as both tough and humane. Bad press becomes proof of the government’s transparency, of its concessions to freedom (of the press, not the refugee), even as strict controls remain in place – both about who can visit the facility, and about what can be depicted.

These controls mean that detainees are always shown at a distance, always with blurred and indistinct faces. The BBC footage is very different to the earlier, clandestine footage, with its intimate if uncomfortable close-ups. Allowing the press in but requiring them to keep their distance is a means of enforcing the distance between the public and the detainees. It is harder to feel sympathy for a faceless person.

The contrast between the new and old footage allows the latter to be subsumed into a larger narrative of the humanity of detainee treatment. While the media ban was in place the secret footage – of detainees with their lips stitched closed, of a detainee after a failed suicide attempt – provided the definitive images of the site. The new footage creates a different vision: things used to be bad at Nauru, but the government has made them better. Rooms with bunk beds and ceiling fans have replaced sweltering, overcrowded tents. This represents an undeniable improvement, but does nothing to address the root cause of detainee discontent: indefinite detention and an uncertain future.

‘Humanitarian’ concessions on the part of the government play into the persistent narrative that these asylum seekers are ungrateful queue-jumpers. Even after the facility upgrade, they continue to hunger strike – will they never be satisfied? Bob Carr’s recent comments on the ‘new profile’ of the asylum seeker as an economic migrant rather than political refugee builds upon the narrative. The government’s emphasis on the normality of conditions at Nauru – the availability of plasma screens and games consoles – enforces the sense that offshore detention isn’t so bad, and that far from deserving pity, detainees are already being treated too well.

Journalists can also be used as a mouthpiece for the government. Bryant dutifully recites the claim that ‘one of the Australian government’s chief concerns about letting us in, was that [the new facility] would look too nice, negating its deterrent effect.’ This is a patently disingenuous claim – new bunk beds will do nothing to lessen the deterrent effect of rightlessness and indefinite detention in a country never intended as a destination. Bryant is clearly sceptical of the claim, but given that the only perspective to which he has access during his tour is that of the government (the interviews in his report take place off-site), he is bound to report and report on it.

Finally, focusing on the humanity of the new facilities conveniently overlooks their permanence. The old military tents were completely inadequate, but they were also transitory, and they suggested that the camp might be, too. The new facilities, however, are built to last, and to hold more detainees. They indicate that the Pacific Solution is here to stay.

Bringing the press into the Nauru detention facility allows the government to have it both ways – to claim an excess of humanitarianism, while legitimising and developing its harsh policy of indefinite offshore detention. Despite Bryant’s criticism of this policy, his visit plays into a government strategy to shift public attention from inhumane policy to humane facilities, from pitiable asylum seekers to ungrateful economic migrants – and from a place too controversial for cameras, to one rendered ordinary by media exposure.

Philip Johnson

Philip Johnson is a doctoral student in Political Science at the City University of New York and editor for the Guantánamo Public Memory Project. He is from Sydney but currently lives in Brooklyn. He tweets at @phillegitimate.

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  1. I haven’t seen the programme that you’re talking about but I definitely think there are positives to governments allowing media to visit detention centres. I think that a well organised human rights campaign could turn the positive image which the government is trying to promote and turn it on its head. Any decent viewer would not appreciate that they are being duped into thinking that all is well and would lend support to campaigns criticising this aspect of government policy. From an Irish experience of state involvement in detention centres, specifically Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby homes, it was the secrecy and seclusion which contributed to the continuation of these detention centres. Once investigations began to be carried out the system crumbled, and while it still hasn’t been fully rectified and victims compensated, a lot of positive change has occured.

  2. You raise a valid point: media exposure can lift the lid on hidden abuses, and eventually prevent them.

    I’d say that the secret footage of detainees at Nauru does exactly that. Footage that has been authorised by the government – and this press tour of Nauru seems about as heavily controlled as a tour of North Korea – has less power to provoke outrage and action.

    The comparison to Guantánamo is important here (elsewhere on this site I’ve warned against comparisons between GTMO and Nauru: bear with me). The Bush administration was enthusiastic about opening GTMO up to the press, especially after the damaging Camp X-Ray photos were leaked. Media tours have been a constant feature of the camps since about 2005, a strategy that has allowed Donald Rumsfeld to boast that, “no detention facility in the history of warfare has been more transparent or received more scrutiny than Guantánamo.”

    And for all the exposure, GTMO is still open…

  3. I think that the two facilities serve very different functions. There was a time when, and many places and people that were supportive of the use Guatanamo and similar centres in the “war on terror”. It accompanied heightened emotional discussions so it was much easier for the Bush administration and like minded media to argue in favour of their existence. Exposure must accompany lobbying and political will to produce results. Results take time but babysteps in the right direction are being made. Discussions on asylum seekers are never as emotionally driven and are often accompanied by figures, statistics and economic apocolaypse reports. This could be a positive for those looking to shine a light on human rights abuses. Since the international economic downturn there has been major uproar on human rights being sacrificed for bottom lines and putting the human face on detainees at Nauru will be pivotal to any successful campaign to change state policy on the issues.

  4. Totally agree that keeping a ‘human faces’ on detainees is crucial to lobbying against this detention policy.

    Problem is that the media can’t film faces, release names, or conduct interviews with detainees. Media tours don’t bring access to individuals, just a mass of distant, unknown figures – exactly how the govt would like us to see refugees.

    On GTMO and Nauru, there is a very important connection. GTMO was used as an offshore detention facility in the 90s. Tens of thousands of Haitians and Cubans were detained there, in conditions similar to those in Nauru. That was the 90s, but the US govt has continued to invest in infrastructure at GTMO: it is keeping open the possibility of using it as a refugee camp again. Each site is its own thing, but there are some strong correspondences.

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