Although Joel van Houdt and Luke Mogelson have yet to publish a single word from their trip, they have borne witness to an event shrouded in a state-sanctioned narrative
Conflict journalism, said the late veteran war reporter Marie Colvin, means “trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda.” Speaking two years before her death at the hands of a Syrian army rocket in the city of Homs, she continued: “We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?”
The waters of the Indian Ocean that flow between Indonesia and Australia’s Christmas Island are no warzone, but news that two freelance journalists working for the New York Times undertook the perilous journey on a boat carrying 55 other passengers seeking asylum raises similar ethical questions. It is estimated that over 1,000 people have lost their lives attempting to reach Australia by boat since 2007, and that that tens of thousands of dollars are exchanged each time a people smuggler facilitates the journey, profiting from the misery of those fleeing persecution.
Joel van Houdt and Luke Mogelson, the two experienced reporters who undertook the voyage, have yet to comment on the event. As news broke on Monday that the pair had arrived on Christmas island, “sunburnt” and “green around the gills”, debate about their decision raged online. “A little dumb” in some people’s eyes, “courageous”, according to others.
But it was one reaction in particular that summed up the reasons why their decision to go ahead was journalistically sound. The Australian department for immigration communications manager, Sandi Logan, weighed into the debate using Twitter. He described the trip as “crazy risky”, suggesting that if the boat had gone into distress people might not have thought it such “a good story”. He also re-tweeted a message suggesting that Mogelson and van Houdt’s trip would encourage other “half-wit” journalists to do the same.
There is little doubt that trip like this one will be detested by the immigration department for reasons other than safety concerns. Although van Houdt and Mogelson have yet to publish a single word or picture from their trip, they have essentially borne witness to an event that is shrouded in a state-sanctioned narrative.
As policy, the department will not name a single asylum seeker that perishes at sea. It allows but a handful of visits to immigration detention centres both on and offshore, yet uses the images of misery from recent boat arrivals to sell a policy message.
This stance is set against a backdrop of one of the most hardline immigration policies in the western world. At present, all asylum seekers arriving by boat are automatically resettled in Papua New Guinea or the tiny Pacific island state of Nauru in an offshore processing model condemned by the UN, and described by the former prime minister of Australia, Malcolm Fraser, as shifting humans to gulags in the third world.
Things looks likely to get worse under the new Abbott government. Scott Morrison, the next immigration minister, indicated that the public may not even be informed when a boat carrying asylum seekers attempts arrival in Australia.
What is mostly lacking in reporting around asylum issues in Australia are the voices of asylum seekers themselves – this despite some forensic reporting that runs against the tide. Any attempt at rebalancing the narrative, however bold and dangerous, should be lauded. It’s time to move on from questions over whether their decision was ethically sound, and to think about what this reporting might do for public debate.