The secrecy around Operation Sovereign Borders has been widely derided – immigration minister Scott Morrison's media strategy not least of all. Built on motherhood statements, the withholding of information and tautology, journalists and the public have been infuriated by the lack of information on the fate of asylum seekers.
The deliberate strategy to stonewall reporters appears to have been taken in September 2013. An email dated 10 September 2013 – mere days after the Coalition's victory in the last federal election – from the director of operations, border protection command, confirms that:
We should not be releasing any information regarding posture, asset details etc inside a timeframe that may impact BPC operations. I do not think we should over-engineer this with multiple considerations. If we are able to take an approach based on the principle and consideration of operational security – we need to be consistent and straight forward.
Therefore, no details about detection; no name of any [customs or navy] asset; no specific location … and no specific timing. Under this rule, we would only release media once [potential irregular immigrants] were transferred ashore (at the earliest) … The fact that people will learn of certain details through Rescue Coordination Centre broadcasts … that does not mean that we greatly exacerbate the problem but (sic) announcing it ourselves. Our line for all current operations should simply be: Border Protection Command does not comment on current operational information.
This strategy, which today Morrison said was put in place by General Angus Campbell, has been rigorously implemented by ministers, their advisers and various government departments.
The OSB media strategy was demonstrated definitively in the response to the now-notorious "burned hands" reports of January, which alleged that asylum seekers were mistreated when a boat was intercepted off the coast of Darwin. Despite the incidents having taken place half a year ago, we still know very little about the internal decision-making process conducted in response to the reports by the department of immigration.
Documents obtained under freedom of information (FOI) laws clearly show that journalists tried to ascertain the substance of the allegations, by lodging various media enquiries. Those enquiries prompted responses in keeping with the official media strategy: publicly, senior members of the government and military strenuously denied allegations of serious mistreatment of asylum seekers by navy personnel.
The FOI documents include an email from a redacted source to "Media Ops", dated 22 January 2014:
As discussed can I please get a response I (sic) the asylum seeker claims on abc this morning. Eric Abetz is out and about saying it's too early to say if it happened. Can you also advise of (sic) defence think the asylum seekers may have done it to themselves.
Yet Morrison had said the day before, on 21 January, that he had satisfied himself the allegations were baseless, because he was "assured about the professionalism and the integrity of the conduct of our officers and I have absolutely no reason to doubt it".
Similarly, in February this year, Tony Abbott launched an attack on the reporting of the mistreatment claims by saying, "If a very serious allegation was being made that Australian Navy personnel effectively tortured people, well you'd think any responsible news outlet, let alone the voice of Australia – the ABC – would have sought corroboration before broadcasting them".
We already know that corroboration was difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. Up to that point all that was offered were official denials, moral indignation and confirmation from Campbell that "there is an inside-military & customs services assessment process to look at the question of what we were doing, what we knew, who was engaged – so to essentially create a capacity to characterise whether there's some substance to allegations".
That assessment process didn't extend to interviewing the asylum seekers who made the allegations, which, as international law expert Ben Saul confirmed on 7 February, we are obliged to do under international law.
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