Last week David Aedang, Nauru’s newly re-elected government, released a statement taking aim at Australian and New Zealand media outlets for their allegedly unethical and biased coverage, specifically naming four of them:

‘It’s time for the Australian and New Zealand media to show more respect to the people and Government of Nauru following the national election that saw the Government returned with an increased majority, according to Nauru’s justice minister.

‘David Adeang said certain media outlets like the ABC, Fairfax, the Guardian and Radio New Zealand have “unethically attempted to influence our domestic politics by spreading lies, promoting Opposition MPs and refusing to report the huge progress Nauru has made over the past three years under the [President Baron Waqa] Government.”’

Since a less-than-kind assessment of the Nauru detention centre from the BBC in 2013, the only Australian media to visit the island have been The Australian’s Chris Kenny last year and Channel Nine's A Current Affair in June of this year. In 2014 the cost of applying for a media visa jumped from $200 to $8000 (ostensibly to raise government revenue), and attempts by reporters and photographers from ABC, Al Jazeera, The Guardian Australia and SBS to visit the island have reportedly been stonewalled or denied outright

During Australia’s recently concluded election campaign, Labor leader Bill Shorten said that as prime minister he would allow journalists and independent observers onto any offshore detention centre run by Australia. Several government ministers correctly pointed out that this wasn’t something an Australian prime minister could unilaterally decree (the next day Shorten acknowledged that ‘in terms of restrictions, obviously we have to work through with the government of the jurisdiction’). Among the detractors was Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who told The Australian:

‘It’s an issue for the Nauruan government as to who they allow into their country…the Australian government has no policy which restricts people, including journalists, from going to Nauru, and what Mr Shorten did last night was to be very tricky.’

While it’s undeniably true that the Nauruan government decides who comes into their country and the circumstances in which they come, the Australian government also decides whether or not the conditions on Nauru (including media access) are acceptable enough to run a detention centre there, and if not, whether diplomatic resources should be invested in attempting to adjust those conditions. 

Dutton has previously stated that as immigration minister he doesn’t ‘intend to lecture Nauru as I wouldn’t expect them to lecture us in terms of who should come to our country’. But why not? The Australian government runs many diplomatic posts, trade missions, and other institutions in states with questionable standards of press freedom and accessibility. But few of these institutions are as important in domestic politics as this detention centre, and few of those nations are as diplomatically close to Australia as Nauru. 

Perhaps the Nauruan government is correct, and the controversy surrounding the detention centres is unwarranted; the accounts of both Kenny and A Current Affair’s Caroline Marcus provide a more measured characterisation of conditions on Nauru than, say, this Guardian Australia interview. But the accuracy of Kenny’s and Marcus’s reportage has no bearing on the broader democratic implications of running an isolated detention centre in an environment with far lower standards of media scrutiny. On this issue, the standard the Australian government abides by is the standard it endorses.

But what exactly is this standard? Following Shorten’s comments on Q&A last month, Nauru’s government released a broad statement on media visits; the document is worth reading in its entirety, but as it’s quite long here are some relevant extracts:

‘Just like Australia, we will not allow those who we believe want to come to Nauru to incite violence, hatred and tension within our country.

‘Unfortunately there are some media outlets and some refugee advocates who would do just that if they came to Nauru…

‘The presence on Nauru of media who have no respect for our security, culture and laws, will likely incite refugees and asylum seekers who already are angry that they are not in Australia, to acts of violence and other acts. We saw this with a recent visit from UNHCR.

‘It is for reasons of safety and security that we are not able to allow all media onto Nauru, and we will never allow media who we believe will intentionally incite violence and unrest to further their story.

‘We will however—subject to normal application procedures and approval—allow media outlets who will be respectful and objective, and who do not have a record of spreading untruths about our country.’

The Australian government should either accept this standard as adequate, or work with the Nauruan government to adjust the terms. To throw up its hands and do neither (and to suggest the Opposition is erring by picking one of these options) is, at best, a politically convenient stance that undermines Australian government transparency.

Photo: Getty Images/Stefan Postles