Thursday January 8, 2009 7:30am WST
For Immediate Release
"The West Australian, WA Newspapers' flagship, is setting the tone for the nation in the new year by firmly committing itself to scrutinise and edit Letters to the Editor so no references to "illegals", "illegal immigrants" or "illegal refugees" will make it to its print or online editions, and it's a long hoped-for and terrific initiative that came about on New Year's Day last week," WA Human Rights group said this morning.
"The move was confirmed on the first of January by the West's Readers' Editor David Hummerston in communication with Perth rights advocate and Project SafeCom member Ross Copeland, who was the initiator and catalyst of our long-term campaign dubbed "Catching Illegals Down Under", which we started in 2003," spokesman Jack H Smit said.
Last week Mr Copeland wrote to the West Australian:
"I am sure that the West Australian is aware that refugees and asylum seekers are not "illegal immigrants". The right of anyone to come to Australia, regardless of how they arrive, and make a claim for refugee status is established under Australian and international law. It follows that asylum seekers, even boat people, are not illegal - they have breached no law.
"I am also sure that the West Australian is aware of the Press Council Guideline No 262 (June 2004) on this issue. In general, I believe that the West Australian complies with this guideline editorially and in its reporting. However this good work is severely undermined by regularly allowing letter writers to refer to asylum seekers as "illegal immigrants". I don't need to refer to particular letters as they appear almost daily.
"It would not be acceptable to categorise any other group in our community who have broken no laws as "criminals" which is what "illegal immigrants" implies. Why should it be accepted in the case of asylum seekers who comply with the law.
"I urge the West Australian to cease allowing letter writers to use the term "illegal immigrants" in published letters. Might I suggest also that you commission an op ed piece by an appropriate lawyer with experience in this area or by the Human Rights Commission which would set out clearly that asylum seekers are not illegal, which could be backed up by a policy decision by the West Australian that "illegal immigrants" will not be accepted in published letters.
In a reply on the same day, Readers' Editor David Hummerston wrote to Mr Copeland:
"The editor, letters editor and I agree with you. We will ensure any future references to "illegal immigrants" in letters to the editor are changed to asylum seekers or boat people."
The first of several pages connected with Project SafeCom's campaign, in which many hundreds of human rights and refugee advocates took part, where they would write a letter of complaint to the journalist who fell foul of the error in their writings and call asylum seekers 'illegal entrants' or 'illegal immigrants', and send a copy of their complaint to the relevant Editor as well as the Secretary of the Australian Press Council, is here:
The national campaign eventually resulted in Rulings and Adjudications by the Australian Press Council when complaints against a newspaper were eventually upheld.
"Coming to Australia by boat to seek asylum is never "illegal", but the ghastly myth of vilification became widespread during the Howard years, and even now, several conservative MP's and Senators who happily peddled this myth since the Tampa election in 2001 - such as WA Senator Don Randall - still firmly believe that Australian law stipulates that it is illegal to sail to our shores to seek asylum - incorrectly, because no such law exists," Mr Smit said.
"We applaud the West on the initiative," Mr Smit said, "which clearly seems to confirm a new direction that started when former editor Paul Armstrong was stripped of his editorial powers in December 2008: on the day Mr Armstrong was demoted, the West ran a front page story about the Christmas Island detention centre as well as a two-page spread detailing how John Howard's politics of fear around asylum seekers was still playing out amongst the population of Christmas Island."
"Clearly, the West is "normalising" its reporting on immigration issues and the place of boat-faring asylum seekers after years of not reporting - or reporting in such a way, that it seemed to support the notion that there is a notion of illegality, unlawfulness and "queue-jumping" attached to those asylum seekers who sail to our territories and do so using their international right to seek asylum."
"This is a story of 'How the West Was Won', and the way The West Australian now deals with reportage on this as well as many other issues, may well erode the nickname the WA paper has held for a long time in the Eastern States, where the paper is often called "The Worst", Mr Smit said. "We warmly congratulate our newspaper with its new directions."
Carine, Western Australia
[phone number posted]
Jack H Smit
Project SafeCom Inc.
[phone number posted]