WhatsApp messages by Manus Island refugee win major journalism award

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A podcast made from 5,000 WhatsApp messages sent on a smuggled smartphone by a refugee on the Australian-run Manus Island detention center has won an award for excellence in journalism.

“The Messenger” podcast, which won best radio/audio feature at Australia’s Walkley Awards on Wednesday, was produced by a team led by freelance journalist Michael Green, who exchanged voice messages with Sudanese refugee Abdul Aziz Muhamat.

The podcast reveals, in intimate detail, Muhamat’s memories of fleeing tragedy and seeking asylum by boat as well as his recent forcible removal from the center in Papua New Guinea.

“It has given me a chance to say something about my life, and also to report what has been happening for the last four and a half years in the detention center,” Muhamat said in a statement.

“I am speechless because I just came out of a kind of trauma that I haven’t seen in my life before.”

The United Nations and human rights groups have for years criticized Australia’s offshore detention center policy, citing human rights abuses and called for their closure.

Australia officially closed the Manus Island center on Oct. 31, after it was declared illegal by a Papua New Guinea court, but the asylum seekers refused to move to transit centers, saying they feared violent reprisals from the community.

Papua New Guinean police cleared the remaining asylum-seekers from the Manus detention complex on Friday, ending a three-week protest which saw some 600 people surviving on rainwater and smuggled food and supplies.

Australia said that all of the asylum seekers had departed for alternative accommodation, but their fate remains unclear.

“I hope ‘The Messenger’ offers an enduring and honest window into a world that’s been created by, and largely obscured from, Australians,” said Jon Tjhia, one of its six producers.

The podcast is part of an oral history project called Behind the Wire, backed by the Melbourne-based Wheeler Center, which supports writers. A book and an exhibition are also planned.