Media workers stand with refugees

February 11, 2017
One of Eaten fish's cartoons.

Eaten Fish (Ali Durrani), a 25-year-old Iranian cartoonist began a hunger strike on January 31 in Manus Island detention centre. He has now been on hunger strike for more than two weeks.

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) published an open letter on February 5 calling on the federal government to free and resettle Eaten Fish and two other media colleagues, journalist Behrouz Boochani and actor Mehdi Savari.

The letter was signed by dozens of media professionals, publications and international freedom of expression organisations. It is a positive sign to see media organisations speaking out for refugees and supporting members of their professional community.

Eaten Fish came to Australia by boat four years ago and has spent the past three and a half years in Manus Island detention centre.

His refugee claim has been rejected by PNG’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Immigration, who told him in a letter he would have to either accept voluntary deportation to Iran or be forcibly repatriated.

Eaten Fish suffers from a debilitating mental illness and memory loss, made worse by the lack of mental health facilities on Manus Island. His illness made it difficult for him to give immigration authorities the information required for his refugee application.

Eaten Fish and many others are under constant pressure to accept voluntary deportation. But, as a political cartoonist who has criticised Iran, Eaten Fish will not accept being returned to Iran as he fears for his life. Iran does not accept asylum seekers who are forcibly repatriated.

In detention he has suffered sexual harassment and assault, often committed by guards. He has been denied access to an independent lawyer and was confronted this year by guards he accused of sexually assaulting him in 2015. Australian Border Force officers then told him his claims have not been substantiated. 

This led to his decision to go on hunger strike. After two weeks, his condition is deteriorating rapidly. He is already suffering memory loss, has lost the feeling of hunger and his heart rate is quickening.

As he began his hunger strike, Eaten Fish said: Something happens with hunger strike and I think you know what that is. I will die and this will all finish.”

He chose the pen name, Eaten Fish, to evoke the lives that are being relentlessly consumed, expended, chewed up and spat out in the service of Australia’s calculatedly cruel policy of “deterrence”.

He has been regularly drawing cartoons chronicling everyday life in detention. He won the 2016 international award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning. Some of his work has been published in the Guardian and other cartoons can be found on Facebook .

The cartoonist community has been supporting Eaten Fish in a variety of ways. Australian cartoonists launched a campaign last year calling for Eaten Fish to be released and highlighting his cartoons. A refugee activist is making a zine of fish to send to Eaten Fish and to sell to raise money for the Refugee Art Project. 

Boochani has also been nominated for a freedom of expression award from Index on Censorship and is being supported by numerous media organisations.

Now the MEAA has joined the campaign. CEO Paul Murphy said: “Eaten Fish, Boochani and Savari have courageously continued to practice their vocations on Manus Island despite their incarceration.

“But as journalists, writers, performers and artists, we cannot stand by and allow our fellow professionals to be treated in this way.”

The approach of the cartoonist community and the MEAA in taking a stand for their colleagues is a campaign many unions and community groups could replicate. It is particularly pertinent for media organisations to be actively taking a stand for refugee rights, given the countless hours the federal government spends in interviews spreading anti-refugee rhetoric.

The government spent millions last year creating a film to dissuade people from seeking asylum and has cracked down on funding allocations to arts and media organisations that have sponsored pieces positive towards refugee rights.

The government has consistently worked to stop journalists — apart from those who will report in its interests, such as A Current Affair — from getting visas to travel to Manus Island and Nauru.

Its next step is to ban mobile phones. Phones are often the only way people in offshore detention centres can communicate with journalists and reveal the truth. A mobile phone ban would severely restrict Boochani’s capacity to report from inside Manus Island detention centre.

Murphy raised this in the MEAA letter: “We find these deliberate attempts to suppress reporting about the treatment of asylum seekers and the conditions of the centres to be an affront to press freedom.”

There have been many cases of journalists playing a key role in the refugee campaign. Last year alone saw the film Chasing Asylum and the Guardian’s Nauru Files powerfully reveal the horrors of offshore detention to people across the world and led to a spike in engagement in the campaign. It is crucial that journalists keep doing this work and the campaign fights to resist government attempts to curtail it.

You can read the full MEAA letter and sign it here.

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