An online interview in Japanese
The Japanese Magazine 'Realiser' recently established a new online subsection on its website about refugee and asylum seekers, Migration Media Research.
One of their reporters, Yoko Iino, asked for our help when an article about the Children Overboard incident was planned. That article went up in the last week of April 2004. During the week following, Yoko Iino interviewed Project SafeCom's Coordinator Jack Smit. The interviews went online at the end of April 2004.
Ms Iino did not stop there, but also wrote a short report on the 2004 World Refugee Day events we organised in conjunction with Amnesty International and Oxfam Community Aid Abroad.
Below is the full, un-edited version, in English, of the three-page interview.
by Yoko Iino
Firstly, could you tell me what made you migrate to Australia?
In 1979 I visited Australia as a backpacker, and once I had returned to The Netherlands, where I grew up, I applied as a migrant, I soon found I had qualified and I returned 8 months later. I was attracted to Australia because I had seen a country, hundreds of times larger than Holland, a country with no pollution, and a country which was "so empty", that it still had many promises that cannot be found in Europe and other parts of the world. The rough and undisturbed ecology in many vast parts of especially Western Australia, were astounding, and almost too beautiful to be true.
And I never looked back!
I found it interesting that you send messages to bring about various changes from a small rural community, Narrogin. Could you please tell me more about your life in Narrogin?
When I first came to Western Australia, its capital Perth had 400,000 inhabitants. Four years ago it had grown to over one million people, and the price of housing had risen to a level where I could not afford to buy a house for myself. That's when I moved to Narrogin, a small village 180km from the city. If I were to transport my land and house to one of the well-to-do areas of Perth it would be worth close to a million dollars. Here in Narrogin I paid about $40,000 for it.
The large area in front of my house was just an area of weeds, but now it has more than seventy species of Australian native trees, bushes and plants, and in the next two years I hope to plant about 30 fruit trees at the back of my 1750mē property.
I never have problems with traffic jams in my town. I can walk from one end to the other end of the town. When I drive to Perth, I usually meet about 3-5 other cars in the first 100kms of my journey.
Since the incident with the MV Tampa and the 2001 Federal election, I work between 30 and 80 hours per week from my computer, being part of "the refugee movement" - communicating with a few hundred organizers around Australia, and an estimated ten to fifteen thousand others immediately behind and around them. I started by setting up Project SafeCom as an organisation, and developing the website. Every now and then we have public events in Perth and also other towns in Western Australia, always about informing and educating people about refugee issues and policies in Australia.
In many ways it is an advantage to live in this quiet town, where I can work harder than in the city. I am not held up by traffic or by many distractions.
I read that after this 'Tampa' election, the number of refugee advocacy groups increased. How significant was the whole Tampa affair to Australian people like yourself?
The Tampa incident was the trigger for thousands of people to stop the clock in their personal lives, take stock and speak out about this appalling issue, also because as a result the Howard government was able to manipulate the outcome of the election. I am not alone in reporting that I screamed, and promised myself that these events would not pass without my voice being part of the fury that developed around Australia.
Within months thousands of Australians had spoken out, and at times it seemed that a new action or protest group was formed every single day of the week. John Howard had not only used the Navy, the Army and the Air force to stop the true story about asylum seekers and their distress to reach households around Australia, he also put asylum seekers in a seriously negative light, for example when he and other ministers in his government alleged that asylum seeker parents threw their children overboard in order to blackmail Australian Navy vessels to rescue them. See The Unthrown Kids .
The Tampa incident was the start of a protest movement around Australia, because everywhere people started finding out the facts for themselves, started speaking out, wrote letters to the government and organized protests. About 6 months after Tampa, there were an estimated 150 websites set up by protest groups and alliances, and while many disappeared over time, other groups replaced them.
I am hoping to read the new book "News Overboard" by Iain Lygo, which examines the tabloid media and racism. There are more and more concerns with the current media, eg. media ownership and control by multinational media corporations, its integrity, etc. What is your view on the current mainstream Australian media?
A few months ago a highly renowned and distinguished barrister and Queens Council, Julian Burnside QC, addressed an audience in Melbourne. The current Australian Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone was one of the other speakers at this event and in the audience as Mr Burnside spoke. During his speech Mr Burnside gave a clear and simple outline of how under Australian law, the Howard government is guilty of "crimes against humanity" for its "mandatory detention regime". [his speech is posted on our website at Julian Burnside vs Amanda Vanstone ]
A senior reporter of a national newspaper was in the audience. He reported on some matters raised by the Immigration Minister, but nothing of the serious legal accusations was reported in the newspaper. Since that day Mr Burnside has repeated the speech on at least three occasions in other places around Australia. None of the Australian newspapers have ever reported Mr Burnside's remarkable claims. This is one of the many examples in how Australian media organisations are silent on what is a serious problem in Australia: the way the Howard government treats asylum seekers, and what many people see as a clear political manipulation of public opinion and a disregard for international law and international conventions.
One of the major reasons for this lack of independence from the view of the current government is the fact that most of the media organisations are owned by the Murdoch media network which seems to have developed a hidden policy of not being critical of the government, because it hopes that Mr Howard will make further changes to the media policy in favour of the Murdoch network.
A second reason is the development of the media as a commercial corporation, where its dependence on advertising and the views of its shareholders has become more important than its ethics of impartial reporting and its commitment to not engage in biased reporting. This results in the newspapers, radio and television more and more representing the views of its shareholders and its advertisers.
The third reason is the change in organizational code and climate in media organisations as a result of the first and second factors. Young journalists who enter the profession do not learn that ethical, factual, investigative and unbiased reporting is more important than reporting what the editors tell them - to report things that are interesting to "those who have most money" - and to do this fast, almost instantly.
Finally, the sector of "investigative journalism" becomes smaller and smaller in many media organisations because of financial and time constraints imposed on the organisation. And if investigative reporting too often leads to exposing corruption in government, while it also costs more time, and therefore a lot more money, than fast and "instant reporting", which takes a lot less time while it satisfies the majority of the audience, then editors reduce the amount of investigation it takes to produce stories. The media is being influenced by a worldwide culture of "instant gratification", a little bit like the "fast food society" takes people away from the ceremony of cooking and eating together at a table, taking the time out for it.
What do you think is the role of media like Project SafeCom Inc.? And what kind of effects it can have?
Project SafeCom is one of the many voices around Australia, and from the beginning I have worked hard to also have this voice also come out through the media. If I can summarize some of the direct effects of our work, then I would list the following things:
The election is coming in Australia. It may be easy to deceive the public once, but is not easy to deceive the public twice using the same tactics - Do you think media/people have learnt from the last election and will be more cautious with how the election campaign's run?
I'm not so sure that "the media" have learnt much. There are several examples of individual journalists having learnt a great deal, see for an example the story of the Daily Telegraph journalist David Penberthy who first wrote a scathing article about "luxury detention centres" but who learnt what really was the case by visiting asylum seekers in a detention centre. See The Five-Star Asylum journo comes around. The trouble is that many newspapers and also radio/TV stations are deliberately avoiding telling their readers the facts about asylum seekers and refugee advocates - because they want to protect the Australian government. This is still happening, so while journalists have learnt what really is the case, editors often stop them reporting on it, or edit their work unduly. There are also examples of journalists working with smaller, more regional newspapers and radio stations that have learnt the facts more than before. The National broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, stands out as an organisation, which has consistently adhered to an excellent reporting standard.
At the time of the 2001 Federal election, more than 70% of Australians are said to have approved of John Howard's approach to asylum seekers. As a result of the campaign, this percentage has surely changed. About 2 months ago, a Sydney Morning Herald poll asked their online readers whether they agreed with the policy of mandatory detention - after ALP leader Mark Latham has talked about the policy in the media. Only 38% of those who responded agreed with it. Other, more reliable studies also confirm the shift in thinking. My concern is, that it may not necessarily result in those people only voting for a party that has the best asylum seeker policies. For example, the ALP wants to keep the detention centre on Christmas Island, and it wants to keep excising that island from the Australian migration zone, so people who come by boat will still have 'second-class human rights' under a Labor government.
Looking at Australia in the aftermath of the Iraq War, I get an impression that in Australia, say compared with England, there has not been much of mounting public opinion again the government's handling of the war. Do you think it's a fair assessment? If yes, why?
That is a fair assessment, however disappointing it is. Again, many of the issues around this issue and informing the wider public are controlled by the media and its pro-USA and pro-government leaning. Reporting of events is seriously lacking in depth, reflection and alternatives. At the moment the situation in Iraq should be seen by the international community as a situation where an occupier who invaded without UN consent fights with the local population, while from the population's point of view it fights a foreign invader which has no scruples killing those who protest and fight their presence, calling them "insurgents" and "terrorists".
Two views are conflicting with each other around western countries, and the media has already chosen to size with the USA, thus marginalizing or attempting to marginalize those who think of this war as an illegal invasion (a definition derived from the UN agreements also signed by Australia!)
Australians are not very good at consciously forming an independent opinion. I may have a bias here with my European background, but I don't think there is a lot of native knowledge of international agreements, the UN and international conventions. We see that in the strategies for winning the last federal election by the Howard government - how Howard was able to manipulate public opinion, and even make people vilify the UN refugee agency, and it is also visible in the views about the handling of the Iraq war. While I was educated about these issues in the Netherlands, it seems that education in Australia doesn't care about educating in human rights and the gains of the western world as a result of the learning after the Second World War. As it stands, many Australians seem more interested in the barbecue in their backyard, their holiday at the beach, about their privately owned home or their favourite Aussie Rules football team.
How can we prepare ourselves so that we don't get manipulated by the government/media?
Get to know the media, their way of working, their "code" and behaviour, and then, especially their needs. I knew nothing about the media three years ago, I was just determined that my voice counted and I wanted to be heard. Now I know that the media needs common people like me, because the journalists need the "food" of information and facts.
Also know that the media world is very much about "instant gratification" - and to get your voice in you need to be VERY fast, and let it speak as soon as something happens. Often Project SafeCom has been the first to issue a media release about an issue, and on several key moments, such as the case where a man in the Woomera detention centre had lost his wife from Indonesia during the bombing on Bali where many Australians died, we were able to create the story for the media.
On many occcasions the Australian Democrats followed us, and would be next to issue a media statement, because I send our media releases as soon as they are ready also to many politicians.
When you know the issues, and you are in touch with the events, you become the news maker, and it avoids the situation where the media make the story.
It is still true that many media outlets have never contacted us, most of the commercial TV stations are not interested - they just read off the stories from the Australian Press bureau and do not investigate anything that's not in line with their agenda of protecting the Howard government: they do not report any refugee issues unless everyone else is doing it at the same time. Of course they only cover issues that are sensational or that put the refugee movement in a doubtful light.
As described in Facts and Myths on your web site, many 'good' people think that "Charity should start at home"- should first help people in their own country, who are in need. How can we change this mentality of 'us' and 'them'?
This mentality is already changing. When we were first able to take a photograph of planet earth from space, we had the first confrontation with the end of the "us and them" way of thinking. The picture of planet earth is teaching us "that all of us are us". The ability to have that vision, announced the beginning of the end of the adversarial system (which treats the other party as 'an enemy' - we have it in our court system and in governments) and it spelled the beginning of the end of the notion that the world ends at the shore of the ocean or at the border of a country.
Now, some 40 years after that picture of the earth, we already have international talk of globalisation. Multinationals have their own vision of what they call globalisation, but that's a manipulation of what global consciousness really is, and it will vanish - because it's not a sustainable approach and policy because it's an "us and them" mentality where the customer is treated as a friend, but is manipulated - therefore treated like a "them". The first law of globalisation in reality is that we now need to regard all of us as "our own" and not "the other".
When I pay for one part of the Project SafeCom website, I use a credit card owned by an American company, using my bank's account here in Western Australia. The bank's record is in another state in Australia, in Melbourne, Victoria, and 3000 kms away. The website computer is located in Houston, Texas, USA, and the credit card payment handling company is in Los Angeles, USA. As soon as I have paid, the amount is recorded in Melbourne, and my bank balance changes. That's globalisation. My money never had to go to a detention centre for years before it was accepted in the USA.
When I go to the local shop, most of the food products or electrical goods are made in many other countries. My new TV also comes easily into Australia, without first being in a detention centre. If Mr Howard gets his way with a free trade agreement with the USA, it will become even easier for all those products to come to my local shop.
But the free movement of people in a globalised world, that's the aspect where we do not have courage in confronting the change. We do not have the courage, or the instruments to help us, to accept that if there are no borders, there should be no immigration prisons. In Europe it is being partly experimented with, now that the EU develops, and even there problems abound: we're still too mean to share our country's wealth with others, so we invent very difficult rules before we say that "the other" is "one of our own".
One day we will have learnt that lesson. On that day we will also abandon the adversarial system, and we will have a consensus system. We will abandon creating an "opposition" to help us decide who we are in government. We will abandon creating an enemy nation to make us feel stronger and better about ourselves as nations. And once we have learnt that, we will not need any borders between countries.
I am very impressed with the amount of information on your web site and your networking. I read somewhere that you are 100% confident that your dream vision would come true. Where does such a strong conviction come from?
I'm not sure where I said that. If I said that about Project SafeCom's vision, I have become a little more hesitating these days, but that's perhaps because I have become preoccupied with the day-to-day struggles for survival of our Project. The dream is big, but very much feasible. But I'm mainly struggling with the few people that can, on a local level, join the project, and who are also able to do the work to help us grow, but that may just belong to what people call 'growing pains' of a relatively new project.
And also, I guess when you live in a small country town like I do, you put yourself in a difficult spot, because you have a very limited number of visionaries around you!
In Buddhist philosophy, everything is interconnected - issues cannot be comprehended/solved by reducing them into isolated elements. Living in such a complicated world, we should start looking at things and try to find solutions in more holistic way. Project SafeCom Inc. addresses all sorts of issues - sustainable development, environment, food security, technology, social relationship, politics, etc. Please tell me your approach to various issues.
Think of the picture of the Earth, the photograph, and what I wrote about the human mind and its changes. Refugees are connected to the issues of globalisation, globalisation issues are connected to developing another view on government, wars, the adversarial system and consensus thinking, and the "them and us" thinking. And these changes will inevitably lead to "sustainable policies". I'm not talking about 'sustainability policy' such as in looking after the environment, but about developing and promoting policies that can be sustained. Asylum policies that cost two billion dollars and more over two years, just to control and lock up a few hundred people, are not sustainable: the price does not match the benefits and there are huge costs to Australia's morale standing. Policies that rely on fossil fuels that evaporate into the atmosphere out of car exhausts are not sustainable: the cost to the environment are simply too high. There are 'worlds of energy' discarded as rubbish and pollution. Only if the energy produced can be returned in a useable way, we can reduce the cost to the earth.
We have an old and a new way of thinking, but we have not embraced the new. Once we have, we will be able to see how the various systems need to renew in order to fall within the framework of the new.
Any message for the readers in Japan?
The sound of one word, and the ripple of one stone in a pond, echoes away and ripple away, further and further away, and the sound of the echo becomes smaller and smaller - but it NEVER completely vanishes. That is part the law of universal physics. Therefore, every word one person speaks, and every wave caused by a ripple, will change the world forever.
Therefore a word spoken by one person changes the universe forever. That truth must give each and every citizen courage to speak out when an injustice happens. It must give you courage, whether you are with millions of others, or whether you are alone. When your government commits an atrocity you must speak. Your failure to speak may make the universe think that the atrocity is an unchallenged part of human life, and it will make the universe sick. Your voice can stop that.
We survive from supporters and donations. If people in Japan can help we would be grateful!