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Allowing a supportive journalist access to Nauru does nothing to assuage the levels of secrecy and lies on the island. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Chris Kenny visits Nauru as borders open up to allies

Earlier this week, Nauru’s Regional Processing Centre 3 was evacuated. An artillery shell had been discovered on site, the second in 18 months. After an anxious exhumation, it was removed on the back of a truck, while concerned asylum seekers asked Australians about the shell’s danger and provenance. It was likely dropped there more than 70 years earlier by the United States Air Force, upon what was then – after the brutal exile of Nauruans – a Japanese military base. Then again, it might have been blasted there by a German warship set upon destroying the island’s phosphate supplies to Australia. Either way, the shell lay buried and latently lethal, an exotic marker of Nauru’s surprisingly frequent involvement in international turmoil. It is a recent history that has cast Nauru as violated subject, wealthy trader and financial launderer for global drug lords and terrorists. Today, the infrastructure of its current role as our client state is built upon reminders of its historic role as besieged aircraft carrier. 

The shell’s discovery might ask questions about how responsibly the site was surveyed before construction. It also serves as a metaphor for how the camps rest upon a volatile mix of secrecy, contempt and inadequate reporting regimes, hidden and dangerous. For two years, Australian journalists have been effectively repelled from the country and an inspection of these conditions. Until, that is, the approved visit by The Australian’s Chris Kenny last week. 

Creating a tempest

Reporting one tempest, Kenny – and his critics – created another. Kenny sought out Abyan – the Somalian refugee and alleged rape victim – who is now desperately seeking an abortion. Flown to Australia, then spirited back to Nauru without the operation, the Australian government said this week, after considerable protests, that Abyan would be returned to Australia to seek treatment. Refugee advocates I have spoken to claim Kenny acted insensitively when interviewing the woman, and remained in her house after she had asked him to leave. Kenny emphatically disputes this, and has served legal notices to critics. Kenny was undertaking basic reporting. Our understanding of what is happening on Nauru depends on this sort of reporting. But what is questionable in Kenny’s case is how he managed to get to Nauru and the conclusions he reached while there. 

Sympathetic audience

“Of course he was let in because of his opinions on border policy,” a senior Department of Immigration source tells me. “Of course. And if you’re recognised as a journalist by Nauru because you hold certain opinions, well – you’re an activist journalist to me. And that’s Kenny. To think he has clean hands in this is a naivety. He’s putting one over us. 

“The Australian government absolutely made proposals to the Nauruan government about how they manage their media. Nauru would prefer no media at all. Back then, Nauru had an ex-ABC guy advising them – it wasn’t Lyall Mercer – and he in turn would come to me for advice about certain journalists. I might say to him, ‘Well, that Martin McKenzie-Murray is trouble, but that other journalist – well, you’d get a sympathetic audience from him.’ We had frank exchanges like this.” 

Kenny seems to have come to a similar conclusion. This week he wrote: “If my public support for strong border protection measures helped sway Nauru’s decision, so be it.”

Kenny will not say whether he paid the $8000 visa application fee, and the Australian government has refused to answer if it intervened on Kenny’s behalf. “I don’t know if the money was paid,” my senior source tells me. “At best, it was paid and he received a political leg-up from the Australian government. At worst, it wasn’t paid and there was political involvement. But there’s no doubt in my mind that there was political leverage.”

It would not be the first time Kenny has carried a government’s water. He is notorious among journalists for his time as Alexander Downer’s press secretary, when he was responsible for spinning the foreign affairs minister out of trouble during one of the Howard government’s darker periods – the oil-for-wheat scandal. At the time, Kenny called The Australian’s award-winning coverage of the corruption scandal “pathetic” and “laughable”. Many in the press gallery have not forgotten. His involvement in the Hindmarsh Island affair is another sore.

But to Kenny’s credit, he has engaged his critics. His refusal to speak to me for this story owed to fatigue rather than secrecy. Kenny told me: “I’ve written thousands of words and spoken extensively on television and radio. Most on the left, apparently, are not interested in the conditions or people on Nauru – just drumming up controversy and attacking their perceived ideological enemies. Pathetic, and even to me after all my experience of their superficiality, surprising and disappointing. Nothing more to say.” 

Kenny’s dispatches from Nauru were flattering of the island, and our policy of offshore processing. He wrote: “There is no longer any detention on the island; refugees and asylum seekers either live in the community or in centres from which they can come and go as they please. After hearing about tough conditions and alleged abuse in Nauru for years it is confronting to suddenly find yourself inside one of the centres, surrounded by children, women and men eager for your attention.”

In another report, he wrote that most journalists had created a distorted picture of Nauru by witlessly trading the unverified stories fed to them by refugee advocates. “I had seen much of the media coverage, often hysterical or, at the very least, credulous.” Kenny is right to question the media’s credulity. Activists have a tendency to beatify refugees, to believe they’re invulnerable to self-interest. Kenny is saying we should test claims. Kenny continues: “With no outsiders coming in, all that gets out is complaints designed to undermine offshore processing. Refugee advocates and journalists run anonymous and unverified stories.”

Again, Kenny was right to question the use of unverified stories and anonymous sources – but obscenely glib to ignore the conditions that might induce those methods. Reporters are effectively barred from the country. They are handling sources fearful of imprisonment because of recent legislation that criminalises disclosure of conditions in the camps. Multiple stories have been referred to the Australian Federal Police for investigation. To chastise the use of anonymous sources in these conditions is astonishing.

Credulity is a strange professional sin for Kenny to invoke. Kenny never questions the integrity of the local police force, but earnestly relays their assurances about rape cases being confected. This is the police force that abandoned its investigation into the immolation of the justice minister’s wife, upon the directive of the justice minister himself. The police force that has confirmed the rapes and abuse of refugees but has recorded zero convictions. The police force that has confessed to contempt or antipathy of the detention camps and their occupants. The police force left untouched by the powers of the chief magistrate and senior coroner – the rule of law, you could say – when both were summarily evicted from the country last year. 

Kenny is again glib when he writes: “Child abuse won’t leap out at you but the zest and health of the children, the openness of the parents, and the first-name exchanges they have with the guards provide reassurance.”

No, child abuse doesn’t “leap out at you”. It’s ruinously contained. Hidden by shame. Kenny seems to have an exaggerated faith in the acuity of his observations, and ignores the fact that his very being there alters the things that he sees. Never more so than on a secretive place such as Nauru. 

Finally, Kenny pulls a rhetorical sleight-of-hand when he pretends that the only “evidence” of squalor and abuse are those questionably contained within unverified stories and anonymous sources. If only this were the case. Kenny does not mention the Australian senate inquiry, the Moss report and the Australian Human Rights Commission’s investigations of children in detention. All extensive documents; none of them flattering. In fact, he has been a key and persistent critic of these reports. Only this week, the UNHCR said it was “very disturbed” by increasing reports of sexual violence on the island. 

Abbott’s true colours

Tony Abbott’s serially maligned, self-imposed inarticulacy found its most infamous expression in his shorthand: “Stop the boats.” The phrase was wearisome and obscuring, but it contained an important truth, however nettlesome to refugee activists – the boats had stopped, and so, too, had hundreds of drownings at sea. The phrase also contained another truth, too, a truth concerned not with saving lives but salvaging the grace and purity of the Anglo-sphere. It was a truth that was finally, expansively expressed by Abbott this week in his speech at the annual Margaret Thatcher Lecture in London. “Your invitation to give this lecture suggests there was at least a hint of Thatcher about my government in Australia,” Abbott said. “Stopping the flow of illegal immigrant boats because a country that can’t control its borders starts to lose control of itself… Her focus – were she still with us – would be the things of most consequence: managing the nation-changing, culture-shifting population transfers now impacting on Europe.”

Now banished from his throne, Abbott shed the numbing cryptography of his slogans – here were full sentences, and unclouded sentiments. He went on: “Implicitly or explicitly, the imperative to ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’ is at the heart of every Western polity. It expresses itself in laws protecting workers, in strong social security safety nets, and in the readiness to take in refugees. It’s what makes us decent and humane countries as well as prosperous ones, but – right now – this wholesome instinct is leading much of Europe into catastrophic error… 

“This means turning boats around, for people coming by sea. It means denying entry at the border, for people with no legal right to come; and it means establishing camps for people who currently have nowhere to go. It will require some force; it will require massive logistics and expense; it will gnaw at our consciences – yet it is the only way to prevent a tide of humanity surging through Europe and quite possibly changing it forever.”

This might recast our considerations of immigration policy, given it was previously offered as the prevention of drowning. But the drowning Abbott was most concerned with was metaphorical, and a self-induced verbal constipation precluded him from voicing it so explicitly. It is true that the recent history of Germany and Holland provides ample proof of disastrous immigration policies, and it decimates our conversations to automatically conflate discussions of integration with racism. It is right to affirm our country’s commitment to the rule of law, secularism, religious freedom and the ballot – as it is to point out policies that contradict these very principles in the ostensible pursuit of securing them. 

The truth is that Abbott stopped the boats. But he did so by securing the co-operation of a corrupt foreign government, attracting the ire of the United Nations and muting his deepest motivations. Political honesty might involve a declaration of precisely which values are transferable, and why. 

Frustrating silence

In a pattern encompassing Australian and international media organisations, The Saturday Paper has not heard back from the Nauruan government about its visa application. Journalist Wendy Bacon raised the money for her application via crowdsourcing, but tells me there’s no progress: “Unfortunately my application to go to Nauru to report is going slowly. I have been told that as a journalist, I can’t apply through the Nauru consul in Brisbane so I have been emailing the government in Nauru but no reply. This is frustrating.”

There’s something most of us can agree with Kenny on, though. “Nauru’s defensiveness might be understandable. But secrecy only makes the situation worse.” 

The sentiment is accurate but incomplete: the secrecy is making more than Nauru’s reputation worse.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 31, 2015 as "Nauru’s borders open up to allies". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.