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Same but different: Bali Nine and children in detention

By Virginia Small - posted Monday, 2 March 2015

Words are powerful tools. They frame and shape our meanings and they also leave a paper trail.

In the case of children in mandatory immigration detention, or any people in detention for that matter, words can abuse and perpetuate punishment.

After the release of the Human Rights Commission Report, Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, affirmed a journalist's question that he felt no guilt about ten year old children in detention who have depression and are on suicide watch.


"None, whatsoever."

Yet, the language used in the "Forgotten Children" report describes the plight of the around 800 children in detention on Nauru, Christmas Island, Manus Island, and on the mainland by pointing out "serious negative impacts" of detention with "higher rates of mental disorders" (than the Australian community).

Yet, Mr Abbott said the Human Rights Commission should be ashamed of itself for releasing the report because it was an attack on his government.

The reports said the children experience "assaults, sexual assaults and self-harm" as well as "extreme levels of physical, emotional, psychological and developmental distress". The words are chilling.

These are the words that should shape our understandings of the plight of children in detention and asylum seekers and motivate change. But they do not. Not yet.

The media plays a powerful, pivotal and educative role in informing and shaping our understanding of all issues, including human rights.


Lately, we have had ramped up news media coverage of the two Bali Nine drug smugglers who are on death row in Indonesia, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan. They face imminent execution for their role in trying to smuggle heroin with seven other Australians out of Bali to Australia in 2005.

Myseven-year PhD research of Australian newspaper reports on Chan and Sukumaran, examined the language used in describing the men at their arrest, their court trials in Denpasar Bali in 2006, and beyond.

While not condoning their crime, nor denying their guilt, their treatment by the media serves to highlight the power of words and the damage done to human rights, whether it's the Bali Nine on death row or the children in detention.

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About the Author

Virginia Small is a former ABC Broadcaster. Virginia has a PhD from Macquarie University and is researching the history and role of newspapers.

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