The Guardian April 30, 2003


Media manipulation of Baxter Events

by Bob Briton

The Easter weekend's National Convergence on the Baxter Immigration 
Detention Centre outside Port Augusta brought out the usual responses from 
the usual sources. The mainstream media locked on to images of police 
facing down demonstrators, responding to breaches of fences and, in 
general, maintaining the peace despite the supposed best efforts of the 
protestors.

Even before the events of the long weekend unfolded, an image was being 
painted in the media of small numbers of police being left to deal with 
thousands of extremist thugs. "When our people are at risk  their 
physical being is at risk  we'll then utilise the equipment available to 
us", Assistant Commissioner Graham Brown told the press.

In the end, some of the 357 South Australian Police present chose to use 
the "civil disorder" gear in far less dramatic circumstances  in fact, in 
circumstances for which they bear a heavy responsibility.

A disturbing incident on the first day set the tone for the type of 
confrontation that marred the weekend.

Initially, protestors were told that they would have to camp beyond the 
roadblock set up three kilometres from the detention centre. They were 
later permitted to carry their camping gear beyond this limit and to set up 
camp about one kilometre closer to the Baxter facility.

The police then changed their attitude and charged the new camp on foot and 
horseback in a frightening display of "get out of our way" 
authoritarianism. The five-minute warning to move on given by the police 
before mass arrests were to take place had not even expired.

In the end, 33 demonstrators and one journalist were arrested over the four 
days of the protest for a variety of offences including "offensive 
language" and "loitering".

Premier Mike Rann made the most of the opportunity to pander to what he 
must think is a large parochial section of the SA electorate.

"There is a small minority of protesters, that come from Victoria in 
particular, who are simply over here on some kind of violent frolic . they 
are more interested in having a stoush. I actually believe that there is a 
minority group from interstate that are basically 'dial-a-demo'", he is 
reported as saying in Adelaide's daily Advertiser. Elsewhere, Mr Rann 
described the activists as "ferals" and "meatheads".

Other outrageous events of the weekend and of the days leading up to it got 
scant attention in the media. These were to do with the treatment of asylum 
seekers detained at Baxter during the lock down of the facility in 
preparation for the protests.

Despite reassurances from Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock that life was 
going on as normal in the former army facility, the truth was that 
repression had been drastically increased.

Melbourne Refugee Action Collective protest organiser Fleur Taylor told the 
media that on the night of April 6 eight men held in the Red 3 compound at 
Baxter were taken to the isolation cells known as the "Management Unit". 
They were bound hand and foot with "flexi-cuffs" and a special tape was 
applied to further restrict movement.

Tape was placed over their mouths for periods of up to ten hours. At least 
one of the men was severely beaten by a guard employed by Australasian 
Correctional Management (ACM)  a fact independently verified by a 
visiting GP.

A further 14 Iranian men were held in the isolation block for more than two 
weeks. They were released only after several of them had slashed 
themselves. While they had been held for allegedly intending to start 
fires, none of the men have since been charged with any offences.

Visitors to Baxter reported that during the four days of the 
demonstrations, 30 ACM guards in navy blue uniforms and in full riot gear 
would march round the compound shouting "hup two-three-four".

Five men were "extracted" without notice from Baxter to other facilities. 
The sudden, unexplained disappearances added to the frightening and 
unsettling atmosphere in the camp.

Men in some compounds were strip-searched daily, being forced to remove all 
their clothing, bend over and spread their buttocks in a humiliating 
fashion.

Children were threatened that their recently granted "privilege" of 
attending local schools would be withdrawn if they "misbehaved". Four of 
the Baxter children are permanently denied schooling.

Some sort of over-reaction to the protests was expected. Greg Wallace, the 
Department of Immigration officer in charge of Baxter, headed the now 
closed Curtin "hell-hole" in WA.

When asked by a former ACM guard at that facility: "What regulations govern 
these people?" Wallace is reported to have said, "What regulations we say."

Pamela Curr, the Australian Greens National Spokesperson for Refugees, told 
the media that these possibilities were considered before the convergence 
on Baxter but that representatives in the detention centre had asked them 
to go ahead to focus attention on their plight.

The sorts of incidents described above happen on a continuing basis and, 
because they take place on Department of Defence property, the SA Police 
cannot investigate them. The Australian Federal Police has shown itself to 
be reluctant to get involved.

"So what do we do  just sit quietly while people are locked up in 'the 
management unit', beaten  it has happened before, and it will happen 
again  and there is nothing we can do about it until one day ACM go too 
far: someone dies and even then, it will no doubt be covered up."

At one point during the Easter convergence, detainees managed to contact 
the protestors by phone and told them that their chants had been heard 
inside the facility and that it had lifted the people's spirits to know 
that such solidarity with them exists.

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