Walkley-award winning SBS Arabic journalist Ghassan Nakhoul still remembers the panic he felt when he received a phone call from the Australian Federal Police after his story on people smugglers was broadcast on radio.
“My wife said what have you done?!” he laughs.
The AFP subpoenaed his telephone interview with the people smuggler and wanted to know the source who had put him in touch with the smuggler. To make things worse, the smuggler tried to sneak his way into Australia with a fake passport a few weeks after the interview. He was caught and Nakhoul was summoned to the witness box.
Like the AFP, the public prosecution had an interest in knowing the source.
It was 2001 at the height of the Australian government’s war on people smugglers. Nakhoul had been working on a story on the motivations and lives of people smugglers. Lawyers informed Nakhoul he could face five years prison for contempt of court for not revealing the identity of his source should he be ordered by the judge. In the end, Nakhoul was not asked to reveal his source, but he says he was ready to risk jail time to maintain confidentiality.
“Journalistic confidentiality is like confession. Once someone divulges it ends. I said no matter what - even if you want to kill me - this source will go with me to the grave. We owe everything to our sources. How can they punish them through us?”
At the time Nakhoul said the Australian government was portraying people smugglers as the ultimate bogeyman trying to inundate Australia with unwanted people. But Nakhoul wanted to dig deeper.
“I thought 'why do they do what they do?' Through my contacts I got in touch with one. They asked me for one thing: never mention my name. I gave my assurance. I made a promise in Arabic to him 'by the honour of my professional career'.”
We owe everything to our sources. How can they punish them through us?
By this time Nakhoul was a veteran in covering asylum stories. His phone number had been scrawled in the graffiti across the detention centre toilets of Australia, prompting late night phone calls and tip-offs and yielding a bank of contacts.
One date still remains vivid in his mind. Wednesday, October 24, 2001. Nakhoul found himself in the lounge-room of a young Iraqi man, Ali Mahdi Al- Sobbi, in Sydney, along with more than a dozen other crying men. Ali had just learned that all his family - a wife and three young daughters - had drowned in the ocean. They were among 353 asylum seekers on an Australia-bound boat that sunk off the Indonesian island of Java.
“All the men had lost family on the boat. They were all crying. It was a really awful moment. I grieved with them. I journeyed with them through that grief. They had photos of children and women they had lost. They were all so young.
“Some of the survivors shared their stories. I am not sure if I recorded that night; it was really after [that I started working on the story]. This is what we are missing now. As soon as something happens people start filming and no one feels with the other.”
Only 44 people survived the tragic sinking of the boat that was later called SIEVX. Nakhoul tracked down survivors to collect their eyewitness accounts on what transpired the evening of the sinking. This was not an easy feat with many of the surviving asylum seekers hastily transferred to Indonesia, Europe and other countries.
“From all my investigation, I gathered that there were still some questions that needed to be answered on how everything happened. This was big human catastrophe where more than 350 souls drowned trying to make their way to Australia. I wanted to know the full story.”
Nakhoul went on to win the 2002 radio feature documentary Walkley award for his Arabic language broadcast of the “The five mysteries of SIEV X”.
He remembers later meeting one of the survivors at Sydney’s Central station. The man confessed to him that if it weren’t for his belief God would punish him, he was contemplating jumping in front of the train.
A startled Nakhoul paused before sitting with the man. “I had to forget about my train and just sit down and listen.”
“He kept murmuring, 'They all died, they all died.' He kept talking and at the end he thanked me and said: 'I think God sent you to me because now I’ve unloaded this, I won’t think of it anymore'.”
Nakhoul says the experience taught him that no matter how adamant he was in maintaining a professional distance there were some stories that never left you.
"I’m not a social worker or an activist, but I am a human being. Being a human being, I couldn’t help but live in their shoes. It was overwhelming."
“Journalists cannot lose their independence, but it doesn’t mean we don’t feel with them. It doesn’t mean we don’t cry with them. It doesn’t mean we don’t try to help them."
Nakhoul says he wanted to use his language skills to convey the missing stories of the human dimension to the tragedy, one that had become part of the political football that is Australia’s asylum seeker debate.
“What motivated the story was the injustice and that no one was talking about them and the size of the human loss,” he said
“I had the feeling that our society was not caring about this. But maybe it was because they weren’t hearing about it.”
Nakhoul's passion for journalism began as a 12-year-old in Beirut in the 1970s. He would sneak away at school to read Al Hawadeth - ‘The Events’ - a political magazine helmed by London-based editor Salim El-Lozi.
“I would read all the articles. I just loved it. I loved the font. I loved the way it smelled.”
Nakhoul was devastated when El-Lozi was later assassinated after returning to Lebanon for the funeral of his mother; his body found with his writing hand burned in acid. It was El-Lozi’s fearless work in taking on the corruption of the political class that inspired Nakhoul to take up journalism at the Lebanese University in Beirut before moving to Australia in 1989 and two years later joining SBS.
“His story affected me a lot. He was so powerful, full of conscience and he wasn’t afraid of anything.”
Moving between a rich tapestry of languages, countries and perspectives is the norm for Nakhoul. Born in Venezuela after his parents travelled to South America for a better life, he returned to Lebanon at five, and grew up speaking French, Arabic and some Spanish. He later added English just before migrating to Australia. It’s an experience he says is an asset to his work.
“Diversity is richness. Mono-culture is boring, especially in the media. We need many views and many voices. This is the beauty of Australia. We have all the beauty in the world, why we don’t use it? We have all the cultures, all the beliefs.
"A field with many flowers, how does it look compared with a field with just one or two flowers?”
Ghassan is author of the book 'Overboard'. His story features in the audio visual installation Truth to Power. Created in partnership with Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD) in Canberra and the SBS Digital Creative Labs, hear from 12 respected Australian journalists on why they do the work they do. The exhibition is on display at the MoAD as part of the Truth, Power and a Free Press exhibition.