After disturbing images of Abu Ghraib-style treatment of children at a juvenile detention facility in Australia's Northern Territory aired on a national TV show, many Australians are calling for political accountability and a broad review of detention conditions across the country, especially for its most vulnerable population: Indigenous children. Others are saying local media and rights groups in the Northern Territory have been reporting the abuse for years, but it was largely ignored by the public and the government.
Despite covering over 1,349,129 square kilometres (520,902 square miles), the Northern Territory only has a population of 243,700; a third of whom are Indigenous Australians.
Four Corners, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation weekly current affairs show, which aired extensive footage taken at the Don Dale facility in 2014 in an episode titled Australia's Shame, shows young offenders as they are “stripped naked, assaulted and tear gassed.”
After the show aired, the Australian government announced that it is setting up a ‘Royal Commission’ to look into abuse of children at the Don Dale youth detention centre. A Royal Commission is a major ad-hoc formal public inquiry with considerable powers. In Australia, Royal Commissions have successfully investigated police and government corruption and organised crime. Prime Minister Malcolm Turbull, when announcing the Royal Commission, commented: “We want to know why there were inquiries into this centre which did not turn up the evidence and the information that we saw on Four Corners last night”. Since 2011, at least three inquiries have looked into youth detention in the Northern Territories (NT) but their reports led to little effective action.
Introducing the 50-minute TV program, Four Corners presenter Sarah Ferguson says:
The image you have just seen isn't from Guantanamo bay…. or Abu Ghraib.. but Australia in 2015… A boy, hooded, shackled, strapped to a chair and left alone. It is barbaric.
This is juvenile justice in the Northern Territory, a system that punishes troubled children instead of rehabilitating them – where children as young as 10 are locked up and 13 year olds are kept in solitary confinement.
Most of the images secured by Four Corners in this investigation have never been seen publicly. They are shocking – but for the sake of these children who are desperate for the truth to be known, we cannot look away.
Some viewers tweeted that they couldn't watch it:
— Anne Frandi-Coory (@afcoory) July 26, 2016
Immediate online responses captured the widespread horror and distress of viewers. Samantha Thomas’ tweet was typical:
I can't stop thinking about #4corners Have felt sick for those kids all day. 😢
— Samantha Thomas (@Doc_Samantha) July 26, 2016
Hilly expressed a shared sense of shame:
— Hilly (@Hillyhobbit) July 25, 2016
Aboriginal people had made many complaints over the years.
— Ryan Griffen (@RyanJGriffen) July 26, 2016
— Close Manus & Nauru (@I_stand_for) July 25, 2016
Many people felt that the scope of the Royal Commission should be as broad as possible:
The Royal Commission needs to be broader than NT and look at the incarceration of Indigenous children in all states. #4corners
— Jenny Noyes (@jennynoise) July 25, 2016
Australia's offshore asylum seeker detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island were also highlighted.
— pennysdrpped (@Pennysdrpped) July 25, 2016
Political accountability has been a priority amongst viewers. The minister in charge of corrections in the Northern Territory has been relieved of that responsibility by the Chief Minister. Many tweeters want to see more action:
— Η Kιβωτός (@RCKsOpinion) July 26, 2016
— Dave (@tevitag) July 26, 2016
What did Nigel Scullion, NT senator and federal indigenous affairs minister since September 2013, know? #DonDale
— Amy Feldtmann (@AmyFeldtmann) July 25, 2016
Facebook censorship has been questioned following its removal of part of the video, apparently because of nudity:
— Kim Bullimore (@rafiqa65) July 26, 2016
The full Four Corners program can be viewed here.