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RISJ Fellow wins award for story of asylum seeker’s failed quest for release

A former RISJ Fellow has been announced as the winner for the best feature (under 4000 words) at the prestigious Walkley Awards for his frank and moving story of one asylum seeker’s failed quest for release.

Ben Doherty, immigration correspondent for Guardian Australia, told the story of Iranian refugee Fazel Chegeni and his tragic death on Christmas Island, based on a leaked copy of his 700-page immigration file and interviews with those who knew him.

The Walkley Awards, Australia's highest journalism honour, commended Doherty, the judges commenting that ‘Doherty gave Chegeni a voice, detailed how case managers and psychologists begged for senior managers to intervene as his mental health worsened, and exposed the systemic flaws in the government that held him.’

Chegeni found himself indefinitely detained - without trial or charge - within Australia’s byzantine immigration detention system, and tragically died after escaping detention, following a prolonged and increasingly hopeless quest to seek a new life in Australia. 

“It's a conflicted feeling,” said Doherty, on the recognition of his work.

“What happened to Fazel Chegeni was a tragedy that should never have happened, but for a wilful negligence on the part of the Australian government. He was a man who had been stateless his entire life and he came to Australia seeking protection, but found, instead, brutality. I would far prefer the whole dreadful circumstance never happened, that Fazel was still alive, and there was no story to write. But I take a little comfort that his story resonated with people and lives on a little, and he hasn't simply been forgotten.”

Doherty was also part of the Guardian Australia team that produced The Nauru Files, detailing systemic abuse, violence, sexual predation, self-harm and suicide in offshore detention on Nauru. The Nauru Files won three awards at the United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Awards.

While at the RISJ in 2015 as a Thomson Reuters Foundation Journalist Fellow, Doherty researched the language used to describe asylum seekers, and how changes in the language used by politicians and the media has altered Australian and global political conversations around refugees and asylum seekers, and the ways in which this has influenced public opinion and understanding.

“My time there improved my knowledge, confidence, and skill as a journalist immensely,” said Doherty.

“These recognitions are a tribute to that. My thanks to all at the institute, and to my supervisor Rob McNeil.”

Read Doherty’s feature for Guardian Australia here.

Read his RISJ research paper here.

Find out more about the Walkley Awards here.