Listening in to detention during lockdown

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It’s August 2020 in Melbourne, Australia – roughly a month into what would become one of the world’s longest COVID-19 inspired lockdowns, at 111 days. I’m out for my daily run along the Merri Creek, a serpentine trail winding through the city’s north. Normally quiet at this time of the week, it’s bustling with people, with locals generously interpreting the government’s directive to only spend one hour outside the home each day. We’re here to breathe in the crisp winter air, but also for the proximal human contact, scrunching eyes as we pass each other in hope of forging a connection from behind our masks. My phone buzzes, signalling an incoming SMS. I don’t recognise the number.

A text message in white text on a black screen that reads "Farhad Rahmati, sitting by the fence in the evening and listening to the bird", dated Tue, 11 Aug 7.38am

I press my thumb down on the link, ‘Where are you today?’. It directs me to a website where I’m then prompted to switch on my phone’s location services.

‘You are 1375km away from Farhad Rahmati, who recorded this 14 hours ago’, it reads, followed by a ‘play’ icon. I press on the button, and the audio I’m listening to – a news podcast detailing the latest on the pandemic – fades down through my earbuds into the gentle sound of birdsong. It continues for 10 minutes – a crow chimes in intermittently, the steady buzz of crickets gradually increases in volume, and some other nondescript sounds can be heard far off in the distance. Possibly cars, or maybe a train. The line between the recording and my surroundings is hard to detect at times, as Merri Creek bird populations – crows and magpies – weave through my audio bubble. Finally, there are footsteps, seemingly drawing closer, then an abrupt silence.

This is one of thirty audio pieces recorded by men seeking asylum, detained indefinitely by Australia after attempting to arrive by boat sometime after 2013. The issue of refugees has played a key role in Australian political life over the past two decades, with both the ruling Liberal-National Coalition and Australian Labor Party advancing a punitive agenda.

Prior to 2001, asylum seekers who arrived by boat in Australia would be detained in facilities on the Australian mainland while their claims for refugee status were processed. If found to be a genuine refugee they would then be released into the community on a protection visa; if unsuccessful, they would be returned to their country of origin.

This all changed following a notorious standoff in August 2001 between the Australian government and Norwegian cargo ship the MV Tampa, which had come to the rescue of more than 400 asylum seekers stranded on a fishing vessel in waters between Indonesia and Australia. This saga led to the ‘Pacific Solution’, whereby the Australian government established offshore detention camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea and implemented a policy of boat turnbacks.

Coming just after the September 11 attacks in the US, the policy proved popular, with the Howard government achieving an unlikely win in the federal election later that year. The Labor government dismantled the Pacific Solution in 2008, however facing growing numbers of boat arrivals and an increasingly hostile political climate it reopened detention camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea in 2012, going even further than the previous policy in declaring that no asylum seeker arriving in Australia by boat would ever be settled in the country. The approach has continued under successive coalition governments, with former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull winning praise from US President Donald Trump for the cruelty inherent to Australia’s policy of deterrence.

I received a new recording from one of six asylum seekers each day throughout August last year. The SMS would come at random times, with a short description giving some insight into their surroundings. The project was devised by the Manus Recording Project Collective – a group made up of asylum seekers and Australian journalists and audio producers Michael Green, André Dao and John Tjhia. You could sign up by texting ‘Hello’ to a mobile number – originally supplied to me via email by my producer at the community radio station I’m affiliated with, Triple R – after which time the messages would begin.

A text message in white text on a black screen that reads "Thanks for subscribing to 'where are you today', by the Manus Recording Project Collective. Once the artwork begins, we'll send you a text each day with a link to listen. Please share this work with anyone interested in listening: manusrecordingproject.com. Unsubscribe at any time by replying with the word 'stop' sent from Manus Recording Project Collective on Thu 6 Aug, 10.39 am

‘Where are you today?’ follows a similar project of the Manus Recording Project Collective’s  from 2018. Titled ‘How are you today?’, it involved 84 recordings documenting the experiences of men imprisoned at the Manus Island detention facility in Papua New Guinea, which were then presented as part of an installation at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne.

One of those involved in that project, Behrouz Boochani, has since been widely celebrated for his writing and advocacy. His book No Friend But the Mountains, written via individual text messages sent from Manus Island to his translators and collaborators on the outside, won numerous high-profile awards and is being adapted for both film and stage. Another, Abdul Aziz Muhamat, was recognised with the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2019. This came following his central role in the multi-award-winning 2017 podcast The Messenger – a story documenting his time interred on Manus Island, pieced together by more than 3500 WhatsApp voice messages sent between Aziz and Michael Green. Both men are now free, having been granted asylum by New Zealand and Switzerland respectively.

Digital media and platforms like WhatsApp have proved an effective mechanism for piercing the secrecy surrounding the Australian government’s treatment of asylum seekers. Journalists have for the most part been barred from gaining access to detention facilities on Manus Island and Nauru, and the Australian government has resisted calls for more transparency over its military-led maritime immigration and surveillance program, Operation Sovereign Borders. The extraordinary stories smuggled out of Manus prison, likened to Gramsci’s prison notebooks, have given profound insights into the reality of life for those trapped in a system that is designed to be so unbearable as to make people choose abject persecution in their own country over the conditions of Australia’s immigration detention.

In recent times, audio has proved a particularly successful medium for spotlighting the human suffering caused by harsh immigration policies. This American Life’s Pullitzer Prize-winning episode ‘The Out Crowd’ uses sophisticated character-driven storytelling techniques, incorporating atmos, first-person narration and music to explore the emotional toll and trauma experienced by both asylum seekers and migration officers as a result of President Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy.

In Australia, recent examples such as the Guardian Australia-affiliated podcasts The Wait and Temporary have provided episodic narrative investigations of the ways in which the government’s policies are impacting those fleeing persecution both within the country and in neighbouring Indonesia. These highly personalised stories reflect the capacity for podcasting to inculcate ‘hyper-intimacy’ (Berry, 2016), where predominantly headphone-based listening practices, combined with an often confessional, self-reflexive storytelling style foster deeply embodied encounters with podcast storytellers (Dowling & Miller, 2019; Lindgren, 2016; MacDougall, 2011).

The specific experience of listening to The Messenger has been referred to as ‘earwitnessing’ (Rae, Russell & Nethery, 2019), with the affective power of voice inviting empathy for Aziz’s plight, and enabling a political engagement with the experience of detention. Much has been made of the role of voice in podcasting, where a personal, conversational style of speaking is thought to make for a more engaging listening experience. What, then, to make of audio recordings documenting imprisonment, such as Rahmati’s, where voice is entirely absent?

Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation (BITA) is situated precisely 1375 kilometres from my location in Preston, Melbourne. Rahmati’s short bio, written in small-print below the ‘play’ button on the ‘Where are you today?’ website, provides the crucial context needed to layer meaning onto his gentle recording made during a period of quiet contemplation in the exercise yard at BITA.

“When I record without talking…it talks louder, because I let the audience find themselves and feel themselves in this situation that I have been trapped in,” he said during a radio interview I conducted with he and Green on Triple R.

“And I think that’s very powerful message. To let people feel our frustration and our pain, which has been around us for seven years.”

The act of listening to a snapshot of Rahmati’s soundworld, recorded just a few hours prior, had the effect of eroding the vast gulf of distance and life experience that separated us. It also gave rise to a feeling of shared listening, made all the more resonant with the subtle feedback of birdsong on the Merri Creek.

Five days later, I received a recording that originated from much closer to home.

Yasin, a 24-year-old from Darfur, could be heard intermittently adjusting weights, then exhaling with exertion, as he went about his exercises, set to the backdrop of country music. Like Rahmati, he was brought to Australia under the government’s short-lived ‘Medevac’ legislation that gave medical professionals the ability to order the transferral of asylum seekers from offshore camps to the Australian mainland for medical treatment.

The Mantra Bell City Hotel is one of a number of Alternative Places of Detention (APOD) used to hold asylum seekers transferred under Medevac. It’s located just a few blocks from my house, on a busy road that cuts across Melbourne’s north, leading out to the airport. A growing collective of pro-refugee activists assembled there in the latter part of 2020 in protest against the 60 asylum seekers held inside, often risking fines for breaking laws restricting outdoor gatherings introduced to curb the spread of COVID-19. In December the detainees were moved to a CBD hotel, then a month later the government announced some would be released on bridging visas. Still though, the government’s no-resettlement policy on boat arrivals stands, so there’s little certainty as to where these men will end up.

In one sense, my closeness to the saga unfolding at the Mantra should have made me care more about the plight of those men. But why should this be so? Proximity, we’re told, is one of the primary news values, but audio has a way of removing the perception, and significance, of distance. Listening to Yasin and Rahmati’s audio recordings had the effect of placing me, momentarily at least, by their side – offering the opportunity to ‘find myself’ in their plight, as Rahmati put so well. And if we’re to truly empathise with those detained indefinitely and without charge in Australia’s name, then we need to overcome the idea that a mere physical closeness to something – or its visibility – is a marker of its importance.

Reflecting on the project, Michael Green points to the lingering effects of listening to these audio pieces.

“I think almost one of my favourite parts of the of the recording is the moment when it finishes, it just cuts out after 10 minutes,” he said

“But actually, it carries on in my mind. I continue to listen along or imagine what Farhad had continued to do in that space afterwards. I think that’s kind of a powerful part of it the way it takes you with them.”

For a time late last year, Rahmati’s whereabouts were unknown. Refugee advocacy groups held concerns for his welfare after it emerged he had been removed from BITA following an interview on Australia’s national broadcaster, ABC, where he spoke about the plight of refugees held in detention. This came after a similar turn of events months earlier, when he was moved from a hotel facility to BITA after talking to media. It turned out he’d been sent to the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney, without explanation. Then, on February 17 this year he announced on Twitter that he had been granted asylum in the US, as part of a refugee swap deal negotiated with the Obama Administration. After eight years imprisoned by Australia, he would be free.

The pandemic has prompted us to grapple with the significance of distance and human connection. Podcast listening increased as people looked for ways to connect with the outside, with numerous COVID-19 specific ventures providing important news and insights into the health crisis, and many others offering a valuable source of companionship.

My experience listening to ‘Where are you today?’ reveals how audio has a unique power to forge an imagined relationship with others, not only through emotional, personalised storytelling, as has become ubiquitous, but also through the simple act of sharing a segment of one’s soundworld, allowing you to temporarily co-habit with those whose lives have been thrown into turmoil through the imposition of border politics.

After months of relative normalcy, where Australia’s privilege of isolation and closed-border policy served to keep COVID-19 at bay, Melburnians are once again in lockdown. The virus initially entered via a hotel in Adelaide, used to quarantine those relatively few overseas arrivals. We spluttered along for a while with low case numbers, trying to keep up with changing restrictions, before an outbreak in Sydney eventually drew us into its web. We’re now up to two-hundred-and-something-days in lockdown, with a tentative exit date of October 26. Some days are quiet along Merri Creek, others more busy. People tend to come out with the sun, gathering in larger numbers than are strictly allowed in the hope, or assumption, they’re not being policed. Still, the birds sing, as they ever did.

References

Berry, R. (2016). Part of the establishment: Reflecting on 10 years of podcasting as an audio medium. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 22(6), 661-671. 

Dowling, D. O., & Miller, K. J. (2019). Immersive audio storytelling: Podcasting and serial documentary in the digital publishing industry. Journal of Radio & Audio Media, 26(1), 167-184. 

Lindgren, M. (2016). Personal narrative journalism and podcasting. Radio Journal: International Studies in Broadcast & Audio Media, 14, 23-41. 

MacDougall, R. C. (2011). Podcasting and Political Life. American Behavioral Scientist, 55(6), 714-732. 

Rae, M., Russell, E. K., & Nethery, A. (2019). Earwitnessing detention: Carceral secrecy, affecting voices, and political listening in The Messenger podcast. International Journal of Communication 13, 1036–1055. 

Dylan Bird is a PhD candidate at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, researching podcast journalism and democracy. As a freelance journalist he’s published stories spanning migration, human rights, politics and education in both Australia and abroad. He’s a former radio producer and currently hosts a weekly current affairs program on Triple R in Melbourne.

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