Behrouz Boochani
Damned lies, News Corp and Manus Island refugees

In recent weeks, the Murdoch press has sent a journalist to Manus Island for the purpose of maligning the defenceless refugees on the island. Media outlets such as the Herald Sun have published stories written by Peter Michael that distort the reality of life for refugees on Manus Island.

These reports imply that taxpayers’ money is being lavished on refugees here. We are apparently “ungrateful illegals” who are “treated like kings”. We are “2”. Michael writes that “taxpayers are footing a $1.5 million a week bill for meals, fishing trips, beach outings …” 

It is a barefaced lie. In fact, the taxes have been spent on incarcerating and torturing the imprisoned refugees, not on providing facilities for them. The large companies that operate the prison profit most from this situation. After three years of incarceration, the refugees in this prison are still deprived of the basic and simplest necessities of life. I know. I am one.

One of these reports asserts that there is a “black market trade” in the centre, with cigarettes used as currency. It also asserted that the refugees are spending taxpayer money trading marijuana, alcohol, phones and televisions. In reply, it should be mentioned that a “black trade” is inevitable in such circumstances and characteristic of prisons everywhere. 

In fact, this so-called “trade” is a reflection of the deprivation suffered by refugees marooned on Manus Island. They are forced to save cigarettes in order to buy basic necessities. An imprisoned refugee is a human being first and needs clothes, shoes, phones. After three years of deprivation of these basic needs, it is inevitable that detainees have tried to obtain them by alternative means. 

This campaign against refugees does not stop with the media. Both major parties are assuredly carrying out the political exploitation of the offshore issue before the election. The language is populist, demagogic, superficial, harsh and one-sided, and tries to move the public opinion from the reality of offshore, to incite and rouse sentiment against refugees. 

When considering the words used by the immigration minister to attack refugees, I see that there is a kind of common thought and planned scenario behind the phrases used with the purpose of shaping the public opinion and making people scared of refugees in order to claim victory in the election.

It’s the same poisoned propaganda spread in the period of John Howard, when the Liberal Party won the election by raising the lie of the “children overboard” scandal. Now, it seems, they want to play this over again. The offshore issue and the creation of fear around refugees is a bargaining chip in the hands of authorities to retain their power in the coming election.

For us, there is a concern that the government would use any means in order to spread its propaganda more widely and influentially. This concern is mostly because of the violence that has been perpetrated by the government against refugees during the past three years. 

The negative rhetoric of the government during these three years, and particularly during recent days, has been wide and influential. Coalition policies have affected Labor, and vice versa. All are harsh. All are cruel. We are the victims of this policy; and for three years, we have been taken as hostages in an official and exiled approach.

Last week, Peter Michael wrote about me. I spoke to him for the report. I did not know he was working for an anti-refugee media outlet and would use my words against refugees. 

I feel that News Corp used me to suit their political agenda. Those people who know me well know that I never give up and will always fight against this cruel and illegal policy. 

Peter Michael is still on Manus Island. I told him that this is unprofessional journalistic work, that he used some of my words from our long interviews against refugees. It is unfair that he used my words as a refugee against other refugees. 

I explained to him initially that the Liberal government is wasting Australian taxpayers’ money on this island and the big companies such as Broadspectrum, Wilson Security and International Health and Medical Services are using taxpayer money to torture people. 

The Murdoch reports include interviews with a local retailer. In the interview, refugees are described as being “treated like kings”. The report does not consider the fact that the local people on Manus Island live in poverty-stricken conditions. Many islanders still make a living from hunting and fishing. From the locals’ perspective, it is very normal to describe the life of refugees as king-like when they compare their own life with the life of some refugees who have cigarettes to sell and are able to get shoes and clothes in return. 

The report overlooks the fact there are some homeless refugees on the island who cannot find enough food to eat, and are still living in poverty on the island. The author of these reports intentionally ignores this reality, with the purpose of mobilising public opinion. The report further distorts the situation by focusing on the lives of only 70 refugees who live outside the compound, while about 900 people are still living in dreadful conditions within the centre. In fact, this report deliberately creates the impression that all refugees are free. 

The reality is that the Manus Island detention centre is a closed prison. The reality of the Manus Island prison is that the immigration authorities have forced refugees to turn to black trade in order to link them to local businesses. On the one hand, the immigration authorities maintain the prison in basic, subsistence-like conditions and, on the other hand, inject cigarettes into the life of refugees to make them have more interaction with the local community, so as to eventually resettle them there in the long term. In line with this policy, the refugees who visit the homes of locals receive more points to buy cigarettes. 

It should not be forgotten that the intention of the Australian government is to resettle refugees on the island permanently, and after three years only 70 people have surrendered to this pressure and left the prison. The policy has been a failure. Immigration has designed this system in which cigarettes are used as currency. Cigarette smuggling and the trade in basic living necessities could be easily prevented by immigration by not giving cigarettes to refugees. 

The Murdoch story describes the situation on the island in a way that is contrary to the reports of all human rights organisations that have visited Manus Island. In separate reports, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, Amnesty International, the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other independent media have confirmed how inhumane the situation in the Manus Island prison is. Australia is, in effect, torturing refugees. It is unclear on what basis this sort of journalism is facilitated, in order to distort public opinion with the purpose of serving the political interests and the economic goals of both large companies and politicians. 

It should be mentioned that the reality of the Manus prison and offshore processing is so different from the stories that have been written against the refugees. The reality is that the Australian government has spent more that $5 billion of taxpayers’ money creating prisons and essentially torturing refugees. Take one example: $11 million to build a fence around the prison. Another: the astronomical return travel costs of nearly 4000 Australian employees. 

Companies such as Broadspectrum, Wilson and G4S have made the greatest profit out of Manus Island and Nauru. The policy of transferring refugees to the islands has greatly benefited these companies. 

In between, there are refugees who after three years of incarceration are forced to turn to a “black trade” to buy an ordinary T-shirt. I give you the example of myself and announce all my possessions: a pair of thongs, two T-shirts and loose trousers, a pack of cigarettes and a few books received from my friends as gifts. I would like to say to the journalists, who have forgotten the basic morality and ethics of being a journalist: if you are truly investigating how the tax of the Australian people is being spent, please look through and analyse the contracts of companies operating this prison.

Have Peter Michael and his fellow journalists ever asked themselves why the Manus prison is operating so confidentially, and why no journalists have been allowed to visit the centres to report directly on conditions? The answer is crystal clear. The government is engaged in illegal and inhumane policies that they have kept secret from the public.

I emphasise once again that these days, days prior to the election, are vital for refugees, particularly those on Manus Island. We have been exploited politically for so long, in a brutal and harsh way.

We are really worried, and have been since the Supreme Court decision that ruled our incarceration illegal. Still, we are kept here. We are worried about what role the Australian government will make for us in the election and what kind of impact that will have on us. It feels dangerous because we are powerless.

Translated by Moones Mansoubi 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2016 as "Damned lies and News Corp".

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Behrouz Boochani is a senior adjunct research fellow with the Ngāi Tahu Research Centre, University of Canterbury, and is an associate professor at the University of NSW.

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