Words by Tess McPhail
Illustration by Ashleigh Duncan

Like many students, 2013 was my first opportunity to vote in a federal election. In the race to win my vote, Labor, the Coalition, and the Greens made Australia’s immigration policy a battleground for debate. I attempted to make an informed decision by looking beyond the sound bites and the spin. But the more I researched, the more frustrated I became with the lack of media reports on the condition of asylum seekers living in detention. I soon realised, however, that this was not because Australian journalists were chasing a better story, but that chasing this story was a breech of Australian law.

In 2011 the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) introduced a Media Access Policy to immigration detention facilities, known as the “Deed of Agreement”. But don’t be fooled by the name; the DIAC and the media have not constructed the terms of the deed.  Rather, it was the government that laid down these conditions, which outline the media’s capacity to gain access to detention facilities. Among the visitation procedures, the deed requires that media remain with an escort at all times, and that journalists must submit all photographs, video footage and audio recordings for review by the Department. It’s no wonder then that media bodies such as the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance have argued that the deed frustrates the democratic right to freedom of press and the public’s right to know.

Although we do not have an implied right to freedom of speech in Australia, the landmark High Court case Lange v. ABC (1997) established that there is an implied right in the Australian Constitution to political communication in respect to matters that could affect peoples choice in federal elections or constitutional referenda. Given the central role immigration policy played in the 2013 federal election, it is hard to deny that the treatment and conditions of asylum seekers living in detention centres is a matter of public interest.  And yet, we have an Australian government body restricting political communication on this issue.

According to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, it is important to balance government secrecy and freedom of speech in the interest of national security. There is no doubt that there have been instances when limited public knowledge has been in our best interest. However, when the law prevents journalists from conducting interviews with detainees, even if informed consent has been given, one can’t help but ask whether this is censorship undertaken in the interest of protecting the safety of the Australian people. Or could our ignorance of the happenings at detention centres be aimed at fostering a sense of political inertia? The Australian Press Council’s Letter to DIAC that called for reform of the Deed of Agreement in 2012 suggests the latter.

Raising these questions does not depend on your party ties or where you sit in the offshore processing debate. Rather, they are questions that need to be asked by any of us who value democracy in Australia. Drawing on the ideas of philosopher and free speech advocate Alexander Meiklejohn, an informed citizen body is required for representative democracy to function most effectively, However, limited media access and a subsequent lack of information on federal government policy hinders our  ability to make informed decisions when placing our vote. Instead we are required to almost blindly navigate our way between persuasive politicians and catchy slogans.

Reports emerged in January that media restrictions are set to increase, with the Government of Nauru allegedly increasing media visa fees to deter journalists from visiting detention centres. Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul responded by labeling this “an obstacle to prevent coverage”. “Without independent media access to Nauru and detention centres, there is no accountability,” Rintoul said.

Though we often take it for granted, we would do well to remind ourselves that democracy is not a default setting for society. Rather, it is fragile and—as Baron de Montesquieu first recognised—must be protected from the corruption of a self-interested few.

The judiciary, by its nature, is limited by the fact that it can only act as a check on government policy if a case is brought before them. The media must therefore play a key role in acting as the Fourth Estate in democratic societies. However, as we contemplate the consequences of the DIAC’s Deed of Agreement on independent journalism, we are compelled to ask, if the not the media, then who is keeping the government accountable?