The Australian Government dealt another hammer blow against free speech in this country when it refused a visa for a journalist to speak at a Brisbane festival today. Audiences at the Brisbane Writers Festival were denied a chance to hear respected London-based journalist Abdul Bari Atwan speak at a festival event. Atwan is the Palestinian-born editor of the prestigious London based Arabic newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi and he was due to share a session called “Is Balance a Delusion” with renowned Australian journalist David Marr. Atwan was expected to talk about journalistic balance and also promote his critically acclaimed new book “The Secret History of al-Qa'ida”. Atwan interviewed Bin Laden in the Tora Bora Caves in 1996 but his book categorically rejected supporting the methods used by Bin Laden’s organisation.
Festival director Michael Campbell told the audience that Atwan had applied for a visa in London on 16 August and it was referred to Canberra a week later. Atwan and Campbell then queried Australia House on a weekly and then daily basis on the status of the request. They got conflicting reports that said variously it was in progress or it was not on file at all. Campbell rang the office of Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews and was stonewalled. Eventually Atwan ran out of time and had to cancel his invitation to Australia.
Journalist and writer David Marr then spoke. He said this was “another day of censorship in this country”. Marr spent much of his day yesterday on the phone to Atwan and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (the aptly acronymed DIC). He found out that DIC’s Character Section had sent Atwan’s visa request to ASIO. Marr said this was done for political not security reasons. It was done for two pre-election fear mongering reasons. Firstly to remind the electorate how frightening terrorism is (even though Atwan merely reports on it, not engages in it). And secondly to wedge the Labor Party into a “soft on terrorism” position if it opposed the government action. And indeed Marr and Campbell could elicit no response from Labor Immigration spokesman Tony Burke on the issue.
Marr said the freedom to engage in public debate has been deteriorating since the draconian anti-terror and sedition legislation (pdf) was passed in 2005. The government was enraged when ACT Chief Minister John Stanhope published the proposed legislation on his web site. Prime Minister Howard and Attorney-General Philip Ruddock were furious that the public could know what was in the security laws. Drafted in the wake of the 2005 London bombings, Australia passed laws that were more restrictive than those in the UK.
The legislation includes a clause that outlaws “association with terrorism”, a power that the government has used widely and with little scrutiny. Meanwhile the state governments were foolishly persuaded to pass the sedition laws on the condition that the Law Reform Commission would examine them in 2006. Ruddock has shown no inclination to act on any of their tabled recommendations.
Marr also condemned the refusal to remove academic studies from the scope of the legislation. In 2006 respected Monash University lecturer in security studies David Wright Neville reported that police had interviewed his students because they were buying and borrowing books about terrorism. Ruddock supported the police saying genuine academics ‘had nothing to fear’. But an Adelaide academic with a $1m grant into terrorism research was warned off talking to Hezbollah leaders.
In July 2006, the Government banned two 1980s texts on jihad after a heavily publicised moral panic campaign by the Sydney Daily Telegraph. Though the Tele described them as “books of hate”, Marr said they are still available on the internet and would not incite anyone to slaughter. Universities have removed books about terrorism and jihad from their shelves. “How are we better off for not knowing what they do?” wondered Marr.
Ruddock is not yet finished. In the last two weeks of parliament he has tried to introduce wider censorship so that anything that advocates terrorism or illegal activity can be banned. As well as jihadi texts this would include instruction manuals on how to make ecstasy. The wording around ‘advocates’ would be anyone ‘who directly praises terrorism where the risk that a person of whatever age or mental impairment might be encouraged to commit terrorism’ (Hansard 15 Aug). Marr suggested that no-one can begin to guess what texts a lunatic might use to commit terrorism. In any case, terrorists are usually not mentally impaired – just really angry.
Marr suggested that if the audience wanted to see Abdul Bari Atwan, they should go to Youtube where they can see Atwan debate the Iraq war with Richard Perle (architect of the Afghan invasion) on a PBS documentary. Marr said that unlike Australia, the US still had a high regard for debate. In the US the culture is to answer questions, here the culture is to avoid answering questions. Atwan told Marr this is the first time he has been refused entry into any country in the world.
Marr said the reason Atwan was not allowed to come to Australia was purely political. If he came here he would have been the focus of media attention. His support of the Palestinian cause and his opposition to the war in Iraq would have achieved a wide audience in the lead-up to a general election. Atwan was not only due to speak at intellectual forums such as the Brisbane Writers Festival and ABC Radio National but also on high-rating media such as Channel 9’s Today Show and the Alan Jones radio show. Marr said there was a political dividend to the government to keep him out. “This is a very sad day for the country and I’m disgusted to be a witness to it”, he said. Marr finished with an unambiguous description of the decision makers: “These people are scum”.