Millions spent on anti-refugee propaganda

April 1, 2016
The Australian government spent $6 million to fund The Journey to deter asylum seekers from coming to Australia.

That the Australian government can find $6 million to fund a film aimed at convincing asylum seekers to not come to Australia and yet cut more than $50 million from Screen Australia speaks volumes about its priorities.

The Journey is a 90-minute telemovie filmed across three countries. It tells the story of asylum seekers who flee from Afghanistan and in attempting to come to Australia meet terrible fates — either dying at sea or languishing in offshore detention centres. In the production company Put It Out There Pictures' words the film aims to “educate and inform audiences in source countries about the futility of investing in people smugglers, the perils of the trip, and the hard-line policies that await them if they do reach Australian waters”.

It has already been screened on multiple channels in Afghanistan and has been adapted for audiences in Pakistan, Iraq and Iran.

This is not the first time the Australian government has published advertisements in countries from which asylum seekers flee. One poignant example is a billboard in Quetta, Pakistan that depicts a leaky boat and warns asylum seekers not to come the “illegal way”. It can be seen in photographs that captured the aftermath of an attack targeting Hazaras in October 2011.

Making a dramatic film is taking this a step further.

Put It Out There Pictures has a record of creating films that promote the interests of Western governments in Afghanistan. These include Innocent Heart, which “centred on Kabir, a 12-year-old boy who was naively manipulated by insurgents”; Salam, a film designed to illustrate “the threat to the community posed by insurgent activity”; and the US government-funded Eagle 4, which is about “promoting faith and trust in the Afghan Security Forces”.

In her memoir Making Soapies in Kabul producer of The Journey Trudi-Ann Tierney talks about making propaganda in relation to Eagle 4: “The official term for what I was facilitating was 'psychological operations', better known as PSYOPS which basically equated to identifying target audiences and influencing their values and behaviour to suit the objectives of, in the case of Afghanistan, NATO and its allies.”

The government doesn't just stop at film in its cultural war on refugees. On top of the $51.5 million cuts to Screen Australia in the 2014-15 budget, last year former arts minister George Brandis proposed cuts of $100 million to the Australia Council for the Arts (Australia Council) over four years. At the same time Brandis announced plans to set up his own arts fund with that money, calling it the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts. This, in effect, gave him power over which projects were funded.

In 2014 nine visual artists staged a boycott of the 19th Biennale of Sydney contemporary visual art festival because it accepted sponsorship from Transfield (now Broadspectrum) — one of the companies that profits from operating offshore detention centres.

Brandis wrote to the Australia Council in response, saying they were endangering their government funding by allowing “the effective blackballing of a benefactor”.

The government's attacks continued in the corporate media. In 2014 then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull proposed more than $250 million in cuts to the ABC and SBS, which have often given more favourable coverage to the refugee rights' campaign than the Murdoch press.

In effect these cuts are creating more space for Murdoch's message. The Daily Telegraph has featured headlines including: “Victory at sea: 12 boats turned around”; “Julia's boats baby bonus”; “Hellhole solution”; “G'day Nauru: Tamil boat people say hello to their new home”; and “Open the floodgates: Thousands of boat people to invade NSW”.

With headlines like these it is little wonder people believe the government's lie that it is illegal to seek asylum by boat — when in fact it is legal.

But the government goes further to silence the voices of asylum seekers, especially those in offshore detention.

Asylum seekers who have been caught filming and photographing the ongoing protests at the Nauru detention centre, which started on March 20 to coincide with the Palm Sunday rallies, have been subjected to intimidation and threats of arrest by local authorities.

One video shows asylum seekers including children standing behind a fence holding a banner that says “We have been in detention since 1000 days ago” and chanting “Human rights, where are you? Where are you?”

In a letter entitled “Message from Nauru detention centre to the world”, the asylum seekers write: “This is not a letter — this is our tears we are crying. No one can see and wipe our tears. We are falling into a deep ditch, no one can see and offer a hand to us. No, we have spent 1000 days here that we cannot get back; 1000 days passing with emptiness and uselessness…”

While the government tries to silence the truth in Nauru, poet and artist Ravi shows what it is like to be a refugee inside the detention centre. Ravi spent three years in Nauru detention before coming to Australia and has released a book, From Hell to Hell featuring poems and drawings he did while in detention.

Going through them, he stops at one drawing titled “Why you punish me”. It is of a man hunched over in a dark prison cell locked up with a padlock that has a map of Australia printed onto it. He describes it as “talking about my feelings really. It's talking about why you punish me like this. They locked up my aims and my dreams, hopes and feelings...”

There is another drawing of birds trapped in cages titled “Freedom is oxygen”. Ravi said: “When we have a free life we can breathe freely, but when we are in the cage and we don't have any future we cannot see anything. It is very hard to breathe. Freedom is human oxygen…”

We can see the powerful effect of stories from detention centres in the “#LetThemStay” campaign. Once people knew the story of baby Asha, and the conditions children and babies face on Nauru, it sparked a new wave of action in the refugee campaign. With health professionals refusing to discharge Asha while she could be sent back to Nauru and a diverse range of community groups and unions supporting them, the government was forced into a political backdown.

The recent Palm Sunday marches, where thousands of people and dozens of community groups ranging from religious organisations to unions marched in more than 30 locations across Australia, showed people are rejecting Dutton's propaganda and instead support a narrative of welcoming refugees.

Films such as Mary Meets Mohammad, which encourages acceptance of refugees; Between the devil and the deep blue sea, which powerfully illustrates what pushes asylum seekers in Indonesia to take the boat trip to Australia; Nowhere line: voices from Manus Island, an animated film that evokes the horror of living inside a detention centre while focusing on the murder of Reza Berati; For my Friends in Detention a short documentary that captures the positive impact of refugee activism; and Chasing Asylum, which features footage from inside Nauru and Manus detention centres are all powerful tools for the refugee movement.

These films evoke compassion, shine a light on what refugees live through and encourage people to support human rights.

Instead, the government would rather attack arts organisations that support refugees, silence the voices of asylum seekers in detention and pour millions into a film that aims to convince people that whatever horror they are facing at home — the Taliban's bombs or the systematic rape and torture conducted by the Sri Lankan army — coming to Australia is a worse fate.

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