Why Were The Merauke Five Ignored?


The "Merauke Five" — now the universal moniker for five Torres Strait residents who were detained in West Papua for more than nine months — have been home for 24 hours. They were released yesterday morning at 5:50am local time and by mid-morning had touched down on Horn Island, in the same plane they left in all those months ago.

Since arriving home, one of the five has gone back to work, another is restoring his home — a boat on which he lives — to full order, and another is taking a break, too emotionally exhausted to think about working. William Scott-Bloxam, the main player in the five’s detention, and wife Vera have set about resurrecting their aviation business.

But their guarded responses to questions about their period of detention are the most intriguing aspect of their return. Yesterday, all five were careful not to dump too heavily on the Indonesian Government. They thanked the Australian Government who, as everyone knows, did stuff-all to help them. And they thanked the Australian diplomats in Indonesia, who, as everyone knows, were the cause of their prolonged detention and described by William Scott-Bloxam during his detention as "papier mache diplomats".

The five were also full of genuine praise for the Merauke community, some of whom risked their safety to help the detainees by bringing them food and other items.

Politicians have been quick to take credit for the five’s return. Yesterday, local member for Leichhardt, Jim Turnour, issued a press release claiming he had been "working with the [Foreign Affairs] Minister, Stephen Smith, and the Department of Foreign Affairs on this case since the five were detained last September". In truth, a handful of journalists and editors are responsible for an unrelenting campaign to make the Australian and Indonesian Governments accountable, and the real villains during the nine months over which this farce has dragged on are the Australian politicians who perpetuate a decades-long policy of not upsetting the erratic Indonesians. Their collective behaviour should be the subject of an inquiry — but not by themselves.

The other interesting aspect of this case has been the luke-warm response by the media.

My newspaper, the Torres News, sent three journalists and one photographer to greet the five on their return, and they were joined by a reporter from AAP who arrived on the morning flight from Cairns, but only after the twin-engine aircraft from Merauke had landed. There were no other media present, and the Torres News — with the only photographs of the five, their arrival and subsequent actions — has received very few requests for photographs. This trend was apparent throughout the nine months that the five were detained. The case received very little media attention when compared to that of other Australians detained overseas.

Why did the media ignore the Merauke five? Possibly because they are middle-aged, middle-of-the-road people. They are not drug-runners or arms-traffickers. And they aren’t, with all due respect, sexy. Their crime was being stupid by visiting another country and not getting their paper work in order.

Boring, honest, old people may not make good copy — but they are still Australian citizens who have a right to effective representation from their Government when overseas.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.