News that Nauru has refused Al Jazeera journalists permission to enter the country is just the latest development in a crackdown on freedom of expression amid fears for the detention conditions and treatment of hundreds of asylum seekers on the Pacific island state, Amnesty International said.
The media blackout is particularly alarming when there are no independent media outlets in Nauru. It comes just days after foreign media reported on refugees being raped on the island.
Nauruan authorities announced this week that they would no longer lock up asylum seekers in the detention center they run in conjunction with the Australian government. But this positive development apparently has a dark side, as journalists from Al Jazeera’s Sydney bureau found out when they attempted to apply for media visas, only to be eventually informed this week that all media applications to visit the island are “not approved.”
“Whatever Nauru is trying to hide, it can’t be good if the authorities are so desperate to block all international media from visiting or reporting from the island,” said Meghna Abraham, Deputy Director for Global Thematic Issues at Amnesty International.
“Amid allegations of ongoing abuse, including sexual assault, of asylum seekers held on Nauru at Australia’s behest, it is all the more vital that media are neither barred nor silenced from reporting the truth.
“The Nauru authorities must immediately allow the media in and repeal criminal sanctions that undermine the right to freedom of expression, as well as allow independent human rights monitors access to the country.”
Even before this blanket block on media visits, it had been increasingly difficult for foreign journalists to access Nauru and report on the treatment of asylum seekers or other human rights issues there. In January 2014, Nauru increased the non-refundable fee for a media visa from 200 Australian Dollars (US$146) to 8,000 Australian Dollars to ($US5,868).
This fits into a broader crackdown on freedom of expression on Nauru. Five Nauruan MPs remain suspended from parliament for speaking to foreign media in the past. They have had their passports cancelled and are facing criminal charges. In May, the Nauruan government blocked all access to Facebook for a number of weeks and passed new laws providing for imprisonment for up to seven years solely for exercising the right to freedom of expression.
When Amnesty International visited the migration detention center on Nauru in 2012, researchers found the facility totally inappropriate and ill-equipped, with 387 men cramped into five rows of leaking tents, suffering from physical and mental ailments – creating a climate of anguish as the repressively hot monsoon season began.
Since early 2014, the organization has three times requested permission from the government of Nauru to return. The first request was refused and subsequent requests have been ignored.
As of August 31, 2015, official statistics show that 653 people (446 men, 114 women and 93 children, including infants) are detained indefinitely at the Nauru migration detention center.
In a recent submission the United Nations, Amnesty International raised concerns about the level of violence against women and children in Nauru. Asylum seeker children have allegedly been sexually assaulted.
“We’ve consistently called for the immediate closure of Australia’s offshore migration detention centers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. The hundreds of people detained there in dire conditions should be transferred to Australia for prompt and efficient processing of their refugee applications,” said Abraham.