Doctors working at any of Australia’s off-shore detention centres risk being jailed for two years if they ever speak of what they witness at these facilities, the medical profession has claimed.
A newly-enacted law has made it a criminal offence for ‘entrusted persons’ to record or disclose information from these centres in certain circumstances, with legal and medical experts worried that the law’s exemptions are inadequate.
The law passed through parliament quietly on May 14 with the support of both the Liberal and Labor parties. Only the Greens opposed it.
Doctors alone do not risk prosecution. The secrecy provisions could apply to consultants or contractors employed at a detention centre.
There are exceptions, but members of the legal profession have warned they do not go far enough.
“The effect of these provisions will be to deter individuals such as doctors, counsellors, and others who have voiced publicly their concerns about the appalling conditions endured by asylum seekers in detention centres from collecting information about those conditions and then raising their concerns in the community via the media and other fora,” the Australian Lawyers Alliance said in a statement.
Last month, a group of medical staff, teachers and social workers issued a public letter alleging sexual assaults and abuse at the detention centre on Nauru. Such a letter could result in criminal prosecution, the Australian Lawyers Alliance claimed.
While debating the law, Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young accused the Abbott government of ‘entrenching secrecy’, and expressed surprise that Labor was not fighting for the right of employees to be whistleblowers.
“We want public servants to be able to stand up when they believe it is in the public interest to do so,” Ms Hanson-Young told parliament.
“Those people deserve proper protections.
“This bill further entrenches the culture of secrecy of this government, particularly the culture of secrecy that is being carried out in the immigration department.”
The Greens tried to add a public interest exemption, which would have protected doctors and others from prosecution if they leaked something worthy of investigation. It failed.
Immigration department officials have claimed to both Fairfax Media and Australian Doctor that such a public interest exemption was already contained in another law, the Public Interest Disclosure Act.
But this other law may not afford adequate protection, doctors have claimed.
On Sunday, the Australian Medical Association passed a motion at its national conference calling on the federal government to add a clear public interest exemption for medical practitioners.
Recent leaks to journalists have exposed allegations of child abuse, rape and other criminal activity at the Nauru detention centre. Such reports could soon be criminal, experts warned.
The secrecy provisions will come into effect in July when the immigration and customs departments merge into ‘Australian Border Force’.
Before his death, former Liberal Party prime minister Malcolm Fraser criticised the Abbott government for its use of secrecy “as a blanket policy position” on immigration issues.
“The government’s commitment to secrecy should be a concern for everyone,” Mr Fraser wrote for Fairfax.
“No free and fair nation operates with secrecy as a blanket policy position. Democracies are based on the foundation of public scrutiny and open government.
“When secrecy operates, it infects the entire system.”
As a result of a recent deal between Australia and Cambodia, almost the entire refugee population housed on Nauru will be transferred to Cambodia.