Here’s an innovative way to discourage foreign media scrutiny of a touchy human rights issue: jack-up the cost of a journalist visa 40-fold, from A$200 to A$8000 (US$178 to US$7108). That’s precisely what the government of the small Pacific nation of Nauru has done, dressing up that skyrocketing increase as a means to “increase revenue.” The fee is nonrefundable even if the visa application is rejected.
The real impact of the visa gouging will be to deter foreign media outlets and freelance journalists from seeking to report on Nauru’s main story of foreign interest – its treatment of asylum seekers. Currently, there are more than 700 people including pregnant women and dozens of children detained on the island, transferred from Australia in an offshore processing arrangement paid for by the Australian government.
So what might Nauru have to hide? Poor conditions at the detention facilities, for starters. Asylum seekers are housed in tents, often with inadequate ventilation. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is unequivocal, stating that the “harsh physical conditions… not only do not meet international standards – they also have a profound impact on the men, women and children housed there.” Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has praised the conditions in the detention camp in Nauru as “certainly better than in Australian mining camps.”
So far the Australian government has refrained from commenting on the move, with an immigration official saying “This is a matter for the government of Nauru.” But Nauru’s new measure is in line with Australia’s secrecy about asylum seeker policy and information on boat arrivals, claiming thatnational security permits its broad restrictions on access to information. It has been politically convenient to ship asylum seekers to isolated Nauru, far from the public view, where Australian media and voters can ignore their plight. It’s time for that approach to end.
The new fees are nothing less than an attack on media freedom, intended to leave the world, and Australians in particular, with little way of holding the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott accountable for its refugee policies. With no stories or pictures to present factual accounts of their treatment, the Australian government can continue to demonize those who seek asylum there. The Abbott government needs to make clear that it’s not a party to this outrageous infringement on the right to freedom of expression, by publicly demanding that Nauru drop this fee so that the world can know what is happening there.