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(Image via @mpwoodhead)

Australia’s detention centres have become propaganda tools of terror. 

Because of the Government blackout, what goes on behind the barbed wire is mostly a matter of conjecture. We see and hear only what the Government permits us to see and hear. 

The murmurings of public opinion are hardly audible, with man’s inhumanity to man spoken of only in whispers. Instead of us just accepting the Abbott Government’s abuse of language to conceal and blunt the reality of its actions, it’s time we faced the reality that our Government is engaged in aggressive State censorship with the objective of concealing both the inhumanity of its actions and its blatant breaches of international law.

Censorship is a tool governments use to establish and maintain control and power. The Abbott Government is using that tool to the greatest possible extent in relation to detention centres. Journalists and lawyers are blocked from accessing detention centres; photos taken by journalists are deleted; visits are monitored; asylum seekers are denied internet and phone connections; seeking information is prohibited; visitors are subject to rules against disclosing conditions in detention; contractors can be dismissed for social media indiscretions opposing Australia’s asylum policy; and it is now a criminal offence for any person working directly or indirectly for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to reveal to the media, or any other person or organisation, anything that happens in detention centres.

The Government's approach has historical precedents. 

An order issued in 1933 by the German commander of Dachau, Hilmar Wäckerle, is instructive in terms of the mindset of officials who engage in censorship on behalf of the State. 

The order prescribed a program of punishment for inmates for infractions of rules  including those prescribing rigid censorship concerning conditions within the camp:

'By virtue of the law on revolutionaries, the following offenders, considered as agitators, will be hung. Anyone who, for the purpose of agitating, does the following in the camp, at work, in the quarters, in the kitchens and workshops, toilet and places of rest: politicizes, holds inciting speeches and meetings, forms cliques, loiters around with others; who for the purpose of supplying the propaganda of the opposition with atrocity stories, collects true or false information about the concentration camp and its institution; receives such information, buries it, talks about it to others, smuggles it out of the camp into the hands of foreign visitors or others by means of clandestine or other methods, passes it on in writing or orally to released prisoners or prisoners who are placed above them, conceals it in clothing or other articles, throws stones and other objects over the camp wall containing such information; or produces secret documents; who, for the purpose of agitating, climbs on barracks' roofs and trees, seeks contact with the outside by giving light or other signals, or induces others to escape or commit a crime, gives them advices to that effect or supports such undertakings in any way whatsoever.'

With an information blackout comes immunity from outside scrutiny and criticism. It’s hardly surprising then that consecutive Australian governments have banned photographs being taken from inside Australia’s network of detention centres. Images furnish indisputable visual evidence, provoke reactions in people and galvanise public opinion. 

As Virginia Woolf wrote in Three Guineas:

‘... photographs are not an argument; they are simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye.’

Remember the "Napalm girl" photo from the Vietnam War? Its publication instantly galvanised popular anti-war opinion in the United States. 

Imagine the Australian public’s reaction to a front page image of a 23 year old woman stripped naked, beaten and sexually assaulted, wandering the streets of Nauru, disoriented, incoherent and distressed. Or an image of a baby "nourished" by out of date baby food learning to crawl on harsh surfaces in overcrowded spaces, unprotected from snakes, spiders, centipedes, insects and worms.

When institutionalised cruelty continues on a massive scale out of the sight of our society, only confrontation with truth and reality can shatter the delusions currently held by any Australians who accept the Government's claims of acting humanely in its quest to "stop the boats".

It is clear from the information we do have that Australia’s detention centres are zones of human misery. 

All detention camps start out as temporary until the public grows accustomed to their permanency. Breaches of international human rights then incrementally escalate as we become desensitised to repeated reports about – and formal denials of – people dying due to the conditions of their confinement, poor medical conditions, guard brutality, self-harm, child abuse, sexual assault and overcrowding.

In 2013, the former Head of Occupational Health and Safety at Manus Island, Rod St George, warned the Australian public that he’d

“... never seen human beings so destitute, so helpless and so hopeless before.”

Although Mr Abbott isn't able to "hang the agitators", the policies of his government go as far as possible in the direction of silencing them by legal proscription on the one hand and rigid censorship on the other. 

Fortunately, it isn't working, as the ongoing criticism of Australia's actions in relation to refugees – now including international condemnation – demonstrates. 

But should we, as citizens in a modern democracy, tolerate such abuses by our government of our right to know the truth about what is being done in our name? There is no justification for our government's inhumane mistreatment of these unfortunate people or for its contemptuous disregard of the rights of its citizens to know the truth about what it is doing to them.

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter.

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