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An asylum seeker shows his burnt hand after a tow-back operation by the Australian Navy

New passenger burns testimony emerges at Fairfax

The ABC might have had its fingers burnt, but then Fairfax emerged with corroborating material

While Abbott's conservative ABC-haters kept unleashing their damnation and fury on the ABC, the national broadcaster simply kept doing what it always does; it kept reporting.

On February 7 Auntie released a new video, made by an asylum seeker, of an orange lifeboat under tow-back to Indonesia by a Navy vessel. On the same day Fairfax published Indonesia reporter Michael Bachelard's extensive interview with asylum seeker Yousif Ibrahim Fasher -- the asylum seeker who had spoken with the ABC in Indonesia. Then the howls from the Abbott bunker fell silent.

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This page is the second one in a 2-part series about the same topic - the 2014 asylum seeker burn and beating allegations reported by the ABC. Click on the 'back arrow' image to go directly to the Previous page.

What's on this page

This page continues the complete coverage of the first page in this 2-part series about the baiting of the ABC's coverage of asylum seeker testimony. Asylum seekers shared their experiences with the Navy with ABC reporters.

As the previous page showed, asylum seekers had told ABC reporters what it was like being pushed and towed back to Indonesia by the Australian Navy - wholly unwanted coverage for Abbott's conservative L/NP government, which had planned to hide its brazen asylum seeker push-backs and tow-backs under a complete veil of secrecy. The courageous coverage by the ABC was agressively condemned by conservative commentators and politicians, and it was used as a vehicle for peddling long-standing 'traditions' by conservatives to bully, condemn and curtail the ABC.

This page continues with new testimony by the ABC, and corroborating testimony by Fairfax reporters. It then reprints a number of opinion pieces highly critical of the Abbott government's ABC-bashing, and it concludes with reports of an opinion poll that showed that an absolute majority of Australians want an inquiry into the allegations made against the Navy about 'abuse' and 'burns' during tow-backs.

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New video emerges as Defence Minister criticises ABC

Asylum seekers towed back in lifeboat: New video emerges as Defence Minister criticises ABC

ABC News Online
First posted Fri 7 Feb 2014, 2:01pm AEDT
Updated Fri 7 Feb 2014, 4:41pm AEDT

The first video of what appears to be a lifeboat full of asylum seekers being towed by an Australian vessel under Operation Sovereign Borders has been obtained by the ABC.

The video, received from Indonesian sources, appears to have been filmed from inside an orange lifeboat which is being towed by the Australian Customs vessel Triton on the high seas.

At least one young child can be seen on board the lifeboat and another large vessel can be seen nearby.

It is believed the same lifeboat arrived on the southern coast of Java on Wednesday night.

The Indonesian navy says there were 34 asylum seekers on board the boat.

Last month the Defence Force confirmed reports that it had bought lifeboats for use in Operation Sovereign Borders, but would not comment on reports they would be used to send asylum seekers back to Indonesia.

In other developments:

Lifeboat arrives on Java

The asylum seekers on board the lifeboat which turned up on the Javanese coast say they made it close to Christmas Island when the Australian Navy intercepted them.

All but two were transferred onto the lifeboat and sent back to Indonesia, where it beached on Wednesday evening.

Passengers say two people resisted the Navy's attempt to put them on the lifeboat, so they were not returned to Indonesia.

Earlier this week Mr Morrison said two asylum seekers had been transferred for medical treatment, one of them for a heart condition.

It is not clear if they are the same two people who were not sent back on this boat.

Youngest was 18 months old

Indonesian sources have told the ABC those on board came from Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

They say the youngest aboard was 18 months old.

They also say the asylum seekers were fed and medically treated by Australian authorities, but claimed to have run out of food 48 hours before landing in Java.

Natalegawa takes swipe at policy

Indonesia's foreign minister Marty Natalegawa has repeated his concerns about Australia's policies in the wake of the lifeboat's arrival.

"This kind of policy of transferring people from one boat to another and then directing them back to Indonesia is not really helpful," he said.

Indonesia's navy held a meeting this week to discuss the boat turn-backs and has decided to boost personnel numbers on Java's southern coast.

Fresh Fairfax report

Fairfax Media has published a story in which a man says he saw Australian personnel deliberately holding three men's hands to a hot exhaust pipe during a tow-back operation in January.

The article, written by Fairfax's Indonesia correspondent Michael Bachelard, quotes a man identified as Yousif Ibrahim Fasher as saying the burns were inflicted as punishment for protesting, and to deter other asylum seekers from asking to go to the toilet.

The claims the asylum seekers had their hands burned were reported by the ABC on January 22, prompting criticism of the national broadcaster from the Federal Government and some sections of the media.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has rejected the claims as "malicious and unfounded slurs". He said they were "rigorously assessed" at the time they were made.

"[The Government] rejects outright any allegations of unprofessional conduct by our people serving in Operation Sovereign Borders," he said.

"If media outlets wish to give credibility by publishing such unsubstantiated claims, that is a matter for them."

Defence Minister criticises ABC

Defence Minister David Johnston says he is extremely angry about the ABC's coverage of stories about the navy's treatment of asylum seekers, saying he has not commented before now because he needed time to cool off.

"The good men and women of the Royal Australian Navy have been maliciously maligned by the ABC and I am very dissatisfied with the weasel words of apology that have been floated around by senior management of the ABC," he said.

The Defence Minister said Customs and the Navy had saved "thousands of lives" between Christmas Island and Java over the last four years.

"My people have been spat on, abused, treated like servants, and have endured all of that to save more than a thousand lives, and yet they've also had to endure the horror of fishing out hundreds of people floating dead in the water," he said.

"I am absolutely sick to the stomach that this Australian iconic news agency would attack the Navy in the way that it has."

He described the Navy as "heroes", and called for an investigation into the ABC.

"If ever there was an event that justified a detailed inquiry, some reform, an investigation of the ABC, this event is it. They themselves have cast a giant shadow over the veracity of their reporting and yet they've besmirched these hard-working people," he said.

Yesterday ABC managing director Mark Scott stood by the broadcaster's reporting of asylum seeker allegations against the Navy, and resisted calls to apologise.

Today, Prime Minister Tony Abbott rejected calls for the Navy to release photos or videos to show exactly what has happened during operations to intercept asylum seekers.

Asked if releasing footage could dispel ambiguity, Mr Abbott said it might also help people smugglers.

"I have nothing but respect for them," he said of the Australian Navy and Customs personnel.

"They are doing a fine job, often under difficult circumstances. They act in accordance with the humanity which you would expect of Australian military and service personnel and I have seen nothing that credibly casts doubts upon that professionalism."

Shorten: Govt 'hides behind' military

Federal Opposition leader Bill Shorten says the Government is setting the military up to fail by insisting on secrecy about asylum seeker interceptions.

In a comment likely to infuriate the Government, he accused it of hiding behind the military uniforms.

"The Navy do a tough job but their job is made even tougher when you've got a Federal Government hiding behind the uniforms not standing up for them," he said.

"What we need here is to forget the secrecy. The Australian people will give a fair bit of slack to governments provided they are up front with the Australian people. It's time to end the secrecy - and its time to stop leaving our Navy out on their own.

"It is not good enough for the Abbott Government to only come into sight when they've got a photo opportunity and then disappear like a submarine on every other issue."

Lifeboat carrying asylum seekers lands on Indonesia coast

ABC News Online
By Indonesia correspondent George Roberts
First posted Thu 6 Feb 2014, 7:53pm AEDT
Updated Thu 6 Feb 2014, 9:23pm AEDT

Asylum seekers discovered last night on the Indonesian coast say they were nearly ready to disembark at Christmas Island when the Australian Navy sent them back.

The ABC has obtained exclusive footage of an orange lifeboat after it landed on Java's south coast last night.

Local police have described the vessel as alien-looking.

The Indonesian navy says there were 34 people on board the lifeboat, which had recently been purchased by the Australian Navy.

ABC News has sought comment from Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, but he is on a diplomatic tour abroad.

A spokeswoman for the minister said: "In line with the policy of not discussing what happens at sea, the Government has no response on the issues raised."

Indonesia's navy held a meeting this week to discuss the boat turn-backs and has decided to boost personnel numbers on Java's southern coast.

The asylum seekers say they made it close to Christmas Island when the Australian Navy intercepted them.

All but two were transferred onto the lifeboat and sent back to Indonesia, where it beached on Wednesday evening.

Passengers say two people resisted the Navy's attempt to put them on the lifeboat, so they were not returned to Indonesia.

Earlier this week Mr Morrison told an Australian newspaper that two asylum seekers were transferred for medical treatment, one of them for a heart condition.

It is not clear if they are the same two people who were not sent back on this boat.

Indonesian sources have told the ABC those on board came from Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

The youngest aboard was 18 months old.

They also said the asylum seekers were fed and medically treated by the Australian Government, but they claim to have run out of food 48 hours before they landed in Java.

Witness details burns claims

The Age
February 7, 2014
Michael Bachelard

For a man whose words have whipped up a political and media storm in Australia, Yousif Ibrahim Fasher has been remarkably untroubled by visits from journalists. Or, for that matter, authorities.

It was Fasher who alleged a month ago that three asylum seekers had their hands deliberately burned by the Australian navy during its second operation to tow back an asylum vessel to Indonesia in January.

But since then, as the storm raged on, he was left largely alone. This week, in the Tanjung Pinang immigration detention centre on a little island off the coast of Sumatra, that changed. Fairfax Media conducted the first extended face-to-face interview with Fasher, who says he was an eyewitness to the incident, and he told his story in unprecedented detail.

His account has been consistent from the first. He says he has no doubt that what he saw at close quarters on about January 3 was three people's hands being deliberately held to a hot exhaust pipe by Australian naval personnel to punish them for protesting, and to deter others from doing one simple thing: going to the toilet too often.

They are allegations which, when given credence and air time by the ABC, encouraged the Abbott government and Rupert Murdoch's News Limited to open a culture war with the national broadcaster, to review its funding and question its reach into Asia.

The Australian navy and government robustly denied Fasher's allegations and have repeatedly done so since.

''Who do you believe?'' asked Prime Minister Tony Abbott last month. ''Do you believe Australian naval personnel or do you believe people who were attempting to break Australian law? I trust Australia's naval personnel.''

Navy Admiral Ray Griggs tweeted on January 22: ''Based on everything I know, there is no basis to these allegations - none.''

The Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison, dismissed the allegations on Thursday without responding specifically to a detailed list of written questions about the alleged ''burned hands'' incident. He said navy and Customs personnel had clear guidelines on appropriate behaviour and ''I know and trust'' they would behave in an appropriate manner.

''The government does not give credibility to malicious and unfounded slurs being made against our navy personnel and rejects outright any allegations of unprofessional conduct by our people serving in Operation Sovereign Borders. If media outlets wish to give credibility by publishing such unsubstantiated claims, that is a matter for them,'' Mr Morrison said.

Fasher, though, says he has no motive to lie. Quite the reverse; he believes telling his story may harm his chances of being granted permanent refuge in Australia. He is willing to talk to Australian authorities, but none so far has sought to ask him questions.

He has also gone further: he has reiterated other allegations, also made early in his return to Indonesia, but which, out of deference to navy denials, the Australian media has not until now reported. On Fasher's account, the naval sailors who rotated on to and off the wooden fishing vessel carrying 45 people restricted the passengers' access to the toilet from the first day of the operation, January 1. Women were allowed to go once a day, at night time, and the men during the day.

A low corridor ran from the cabin where most of the passengers stayed, past the engine room to the rear of the boat where the toilet was located. Fasher demonstrated how he had to stoop to walk down this corridor. Four naval personnel guarded its rear entrance and two guards stationed in the main cabin restricted entry to it from that end.

Across the narrow corridor, low to the ground, were three exhaust pipes, running fumes from the engines out the side of the boat to the open air. Passengers had to step over them to get to the toilet. Only one engine was working - the navy fixed it on the third day of the tow-back - so only one exhaust pipe was hot, Fasher said.

On that same day, a group of four men were protesting against the toilet strictures. Fasher was the navy's go-to man for translation, and was in the main cabin interpreting. As the argument heated up, he says the four asylum seekers forced their way past the two guards in the main cabin to try to get to the toilet. Those guards followed them in, and the guards at the other end also entered the corridor to stop them. There was an altercation, which Fasher said he was watching from outside.

During the turmoil he says a young man, Bowby Nooris, the first into the corridor, was sprayed in the eyes with capsicum spray, stumbled and blindly grabbed at the hot pipe.

This is consistent with Nooris's injuries, and what he has subsequently told both the ABC and The Australian about how they were incurred. It's the basis of the conclusion by Media Watch that: ''It appears that the burns occurred in a scuffle with the navy and were not deliberately inflicted by navy personnel''.

But Fasher insists that, after Nooris fell, naval personnel - he does not know their names - grabbed the wrists of three other men and forced their hands on to the hot pipe, one after the other. He demonstrates how he says it was done.

''I saw it with my eyes because I was translating . . . They punished three of them, three of them . . . so they would never want to go to the toilet again,'' Fasher said.

Afterwards, he says, a man in navy uniform called him over.

''They said: 'Yousif, translate for the people. Say to anyone: if you want to go to the toilet again, we will burn his hands. So, tell them.' So I translate for them.''

Apart from those three and Nooris, Fasher says a fifth person, his own wife, suffered burns. She fell on the pipe after being pushed by a member of a naval boarding party and was burned on her arm.

Abdullah Ahmed, from Eritrea, was on the same boat. He admitted he had not seen the incident because he was on the top deck, but the hand-burning story had immediately spread among the passengers. ''I saw people with burned hands . . . They said: 'Don't go to the toilet, it's punishment . . . from the navy','' Ahmed said.

Fasher and Ahmed allege that, for the remaining days of the journey, the navy refused medical treatment for the burns, telling people to lie down and drink water.

Missing from the story so far is testimony from the three men whose hands were allegedly deliberately burned. Two of them, Nour and Moustafa, refused multiple requests to speak of their experiences. Fasher says they are afraid.

''They're afraid that if they say the truth, maybe Australia will not accept them, maybe they will not be accepted through the UN.''

The third, Somalian Mohammad Ar, did finally agree to an interview with Fairfax Media at the Kupang hotel where he was still being held late last week. But though we travelled from one end of the Indonesian archipelago to the other to take up his offer, Indonesian immigration officials prevented that interview from taking place inside the hotel because it was ''against regulations''. An English-speaking intermediary, Faisal Hussein, said Ar was too scared of reprisals from heavy-handed officials to come outside the hotel to speak.

Allegations of five people burned - three deliberately and two as a result of rough treatment - remains short of the seven claimed in the ABC reports, which was one of the elements that prompted Media Watch to accuse it of over-reach. The ABC has issued a statement admitting its wording could have been ''more precise''.

But, Fasher says he witnessed three people who have had pain deliberately inflicted on them by Australian personnel. If it seems unlikely or bizarre that naval personnel would deliberately restrict access to the toilet on a vessel under their control, it's not the first time the allegation has been made.

In 2003 an Afghan asylum seeker, Abbas Ali Changizi, alleged that, on a 2001 navy interception, ''passing water'' was strictly controlled by sailors aboard his boat, and asylum seekers asking to do so were mistreated. Abbas made a police statement at the time, and his claims were investigated. They were later dismissed as unsubstantiated.

Mr Fasher is aware that his story has been heavily disputed in Australia, but says he has no motive to lie. ''Why people would burn their hands by themselves? . . . If [it was only] one person you could say an accident, but five people?''

Some of the navy personnel, though by no means all, had also been rude and insulting, he said.

''They said: 'F--- you . . . You choose to come from your country, we don't ask you to come'. To the black Africans, one said: 'Oh, you're a monkey from Africa'.''

Fasher has also made two other specific allegations. From early in January, he has told media organisations, including Fairfax Media, about four young men whom he says went overboard from their wooden vessel in the hours before the navy found their boat off Darwin. He claims naval crews were told of the tragedy, but did not appear to make any attempt to search for the missing men.

Fasher, backed by Ahmed, says the four - two Somalians, one Sudanese and one from Yemen and all relatives of other passengers - had fallen overboard in heavy weather when the boat was only 37 kilometres from Darwin. It was the only thing, Fasher says, that prompted them to divert their course to a nearby island and call authorities.

''Why would we land down on the island? [Otherwise] we would have continued because we had fuel, we had one engine working and it was only 37 kilometres to Darwin. Why did we call people [for help]? Because . . . we lost people.''

However, Mr Fasher said the navy showed little sign of searching for the missing men, one of whom was his cousin, Usman Ali Fasher, 23, or their bodies. The naval first responders who dealt with the group told them they had to leave the island because crocodiles made it dangerous, and that their boat was safer, Fasher said.

''They said they were going to look for [the missing men] and when we kept asking questions, they said: 'We'll never go anywhere until we have found your friends and brothers'.'' Fasher has since heard no news of the missing men, including his cousin. He now presumes them drowned.

Mr Morrison said on Thursday the government was aware ''of claims that four people may have fallen overboard from a suspected illegal entry vessel inside Australian waters'' on Tuesday January 7, 2014. ''These claims were rigorously assessed and acted on at the time they were made, and I am confident that they were not true. It is important to note that the claimed incident occurred well before the suspected illegal entry vessel had been intercepted by Australian authorities. For operational security reasons, the government will not go into further detail on this matter,'' Mr Morrison said.

The second previously unreported allegation concerns the apparently imminent finding by the Australian navy that its ships, in the words of Mr Abbott, fumbled their way into Indonesian waters as a Test cricketer might drop a catch.

Fasher and Ahmed say that for the last two nights of their tow-back, January 4 and 5, the two Australian navy vessels turned off their lights. An Australian navy source has said this would never happen and is against the law of the sea.

However, the account is consistent with that of another asylum seeker, Abdirashid Mohamed, who was quoted in the Indonesian press on January 8 - well before the Australian government admitted to border incursions - saying the lights on the ships were extinguished and the asylum boat returned very close to shore. That report suggested the reason was to avoid detection by Indonesia.

Fasher said the asylum seekers had their own GPS device, which showed their position after being released by the naval ships, as 14 kilometres (7.5 nautical miles) off the shore of Rote Island - well within the 12-nautical-mile Indonesian nautical limits territory.

Anwar Salih, a passenger on the first boat to be turned back by Australia - on December 19, 2013 - told Fairfax Media that his boat also had sailed very close to shore with lights of the accompanying naval vessels extinguished.

Asked if it were possible the ship's captains had deliberately gone closer to Rote Island to try to ensure the safety of the people they were putting back, Customs and Border Protection referred Fairfax Media to Mr Morrison's January 17 press conference in which he apologised for ''inadvertent incursions'' into Indonesia.

No transparency or effort to get to the facts

No transparency or effort to establish facts about asylum seekers' abuse allegations

The Age
February 7, 2014
Michael Gordon

The ''torture at sea'' affair now has some of the troubling hallmarks of the ''children overboard'' episode of 2001, with a twist.

Back then, a form of Chinese whispers prompted the Howard government to accuse desperate asylum seekers of threatening to throw their children into the sea.

It saw the then prime minister declare that he didn't want ''people like that'' in Australia, and propelled the demonisation of those seeking to come to Australia by boat.

Problem was, it wasn't true.

This time, equally shocking accusations are coming from the other side, with asylum seekers accusing the navy of brutality while forcing their boat to turn back to Indonesia.

The initial reaction from the government and some commentators has been one of outrage that the ABC would give the claims oxygen - and so be complicit in the ''sledging'' of those who do brave, demanding and ethical work under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

The claims were denied outright and those making them were depicted as less credible because they had a vested interest in not being truthful - they were attempting to come to this country ''illegally''. They would say that, wouldn't they?

Now, those claims have been repeated in more detail in a face-to-face interview with Fairfax Media's Indonesia correspondent, Michael Bachelard.

The common denominator is the lack of transparency and refusal to get to the bottom of serious allegations when they are made.

One troubling aspect of this saga, revealed by Bachelard, is that there appears to have been no attempt by Australian officials to interview those making claims.

Another is the refusal to reveal precisely what did happen when the asylum seekers' boat was turned back under a policy opposed by Indonesia, and how some asylum seekers came to suffer burns.

The danger of blanket denials in the face of accusations and total secrecy is that, inadvertently, it encourages less than best practice by those on ''the front line'' because they do not appear to be held accountable.

If the operational imperative of secrecy concerning ''on water'' matters is considered paramount, there should be a mechanism to investigate claims promptly by a third, independent party, with the findings then made public.

One result of such an approach would be a more informed debate about who is owed an apology.

Fairfax Media: Questions put to government

The Age
February 7, 2014 - 6:37AM

Fairfax Media sent detailed questions to the government about the claims that asylum seekers had their hands deliberately burned.

The first set of questions was sent at 5.45pm on Wednesday.

  1. What steps did the ADF take to investigate the claims by asylum-seekers that their hands were deliberately burned by members by being forced to touch or hold a hot pipe from the boat's engine?
  2. What investigations were made into claims asylum-seekers were punched and kicked?
  3. Are ADF members equipped with capsicum spray for boarding asylum-seeker vessels and, if so, what are the rules for its use?
  4. Was the commander of the navy vessel that carried out the interception and turn-back around January 6 asked to provide a report?
  5. Was the leader of the boarding party that took control of the asylum-seeker vessel asked to provide a report?
  6. Was the boarding and the turnback operation filmed and if so have Defence investigators or senior officers reviewed that footage?
  7. Have the Indonesian police made any requests to Defence for help with their enquiries - or has Defence made any offer of help to Indonesian police?
  8. Has the Australian Defence Force Investigative Service had any involvement in investigating the claims?
  9. If not, who made the decision that the ADF could safely disregard the allegations as being untrue?

The second set of questions was sent at 8.30am on Thursday.

  1. Did Navy members restrict access to the toilet after they had taken command of the asylum-seeker boat?
  2. Is it standard procedure to hold most or all of the passengers on an asylum seeker vessel in the main cabin?
  3. Was there a confrontation on the third or fourth day of the operation over access to the toilet and the general treatment of the asylum seekers?
  4. Was a Sudanese man named Yousef Ibrahim Fasher acting as translator between the Navy members and asylum seekers?
  5. Was an asylum seeker sprayed with capsicum spray causing him to fall and burn his hand on the hot exhaust pipe?
  6. Did Navy members grab the wrists of three asylum-seekers and one by one force their hands on to the hot pipe?
  7. Is it the ADF's contention that the men had already suffered burns to their hands before Navy intercepted the asylum seeker boat? Or that the injuries were all accidents caused during scuffles or altercations?
  8. Was any asylum seeker called a "monkey from Africa"?
  9. Can the ADF say with certainty that no asylum seeker fell overboard from the vessel shortly before it was intercepted?
  10. Did the Navy vessel carrying out the turn back turn off its lights for the last night or two nights of they operation and if so why?
  11. Has the ADF sought to interview any of the asylum seekers involved in these claims or get access to the interview recordings or transcripts from Indonesian police?
  12. Can the ADF provide Fairfax Media with the film or video recording of the operation?

Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison provided the following response at 5.45pm on Thursday.

"The Government does not give credibility to malicious and unfounded slurs being made against our Navy personnel and rejects outright any allegations of unprofessional conduct by our people serving in Operation Sovereign Borders. If media outlets wish to give credibility by publishing such unsubstantiated claims, that is a matter for them.

"I know and trust that our Navy and Customs and Border Protection Service act in accordance with their training and lawful orders and would only use force where necessary and appropriate to deal with threatening and non-compliant behaviour, as appropriate.

"There are clear rules and guidelines to govern their behaviour and use of force and they are well trained to act in accordance with these rules. I'll back their professionalism and integrity every day over the self-serving claims of those unhappy that they were denied what the people smugglers promised them."

"It is also not the Government's policy to give people smugglers a 'how to guide' on our operations by providing responses on the issues raised. To do so would put both the people who protect our borders and the operations that are successfully stopping the boats at risk.

"The government is aware of reports on Tuesday 7 January 2014, of claims that four people may have fallen overboard from a suspected illegal entry vessel inside Australian waters.

"These claims were rigorously assessed and acted on at the time they were made, and I am confident that they were not true.

"It is important to note that the claimed incident occurred well before the suspected illegal entry vessel had been intercepted by Australian authorities.

"For operational security reasons, the government will not go into further detail on this matter."

Border protection to take fresh look at burns claim

Border protection officials to take fresh look at boat burns claim

The Age
February 8, 2014
David Wroe

Border protection officials will make new inquiries into claims that navy sailors deliberately burnt the hands of asylum seekers after a witness gave Fairfax Media a detailed account of the alleged abuse.

Fairfax Media understands the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service will lead a review.

The about-face follows weeks of flat denials by Defence, Customs and the Abbott government.

After Fairfax on Thursday published detailed allegations by a Sudanese man who says he saw navy sailors forcing the hands of three asylum seekers onto a hot exhaust pipe, the government again refused to say why it is certain the allegations are untrue.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, asked why the government could not settle the matter by releasing navy footage of the operation, said he did not want to ''do anything that would cast aspersions on the professionalism of our naval and customs personnel''.

And Defence Minister David Johnston dismissed the latest claims as ''hearsay, innuendo and rumour'' in an angry rebuke of the ABC's reporting of the matter as he called for an investigation into the national broadcaster.

Fairfax believes a standard ''quick assessment'' has been carried out, similar to initial inquiries conducted when Australian Defence Force personnel are involved in incidents while fighting overseas.

This is likely to have involved informal interviews with members of the navy boarding party that undertook the asylum-seeker boat turn-back about January 6.

The government has previously admitted that Australian authorities have not spoken with the asylum seekers.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday: "Endlessly repeating and reporting unsubstantiated and wild allegations doesn't make those claims any more credible or deserving of further review.

That is why the government will continue not to dignify or give credibility to such unsubstantiated allegations despite hysterical calls to do so. Border Protection Command has internal procedures in place to ensure they are in a position to provide the assurances they have made to the minister regarding the conduct of personnel involved in any operation.

"It is not operational practice for video footage to be taken on all operations. When and where video is or is not undertaken is a matter for the operational agencies.''

On Thursday, Fairfax revealed a detailed account by Sudanese asylum seeker Yousif Ibrahim Fasher, who said he had seen navy sailors force the hands of three asylum seekers onto exhaust pipes, causing burns.

Those allegations, originally aired early last month, have been repeatedly denied by the government as well as the Chief of Navy, Vice-Admiral Ray Griggs.

The Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, has also dismissed claims of misconduct by defence personnel, though he did not go into any specific allegations.

Mr Abbott sidestepped questions about whether he backed Senator Johnston's call for an inquiry into the ABC, indicating he was satisfied by the criticism aired by the broadcaster's Media Watch program on Monday.

Mr Abbott said there was still no evidence that credibly cast doubt on navy actions.

Asked whether the government should release any video it had of the interception and turn-back of the boat, Mr Abbott said that might help people smugglers and therefore hamper the job of stopping asylum-seeker boats heading to Australia.

''I don't want to do anything that might complicate that task of stopping the boats and frankly I don't want to do anything that would cast aspersions on the professionalism of our naval and customs personnel,'' he said. ''I have nothing but respect for them ... and I have seen nothing that credibly casts any doubts on that professionalism.''

Senator Johnston said the navy had been ''maliciously maligned'' by the ABC's coverage of the matter, dismissing the public broadcaster's apology as ''weasel words'' from its senior management.

''I have not said much because, I have to confess, I was extremely angry. I required some time to cool off,'' Senator Johnston said.

Professor of International Law at the University of Sydney, Ben Saul, said under international law, Australia had an obligation to impartially investigate allegations of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Morrison denies inquiry into burns allegations

The Age
February 9, 2014
Bianca Hall

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has accused Labor of undermining ''the honour'' of Defence personnel by calling for an independent inquiry into claims asylum seekers were deliberately burnt by navy personnel.

Mr Morrison also denied a Fairfax Media report that Customs would make further inquiries into claims asylum seekers had their hands held against hot pipes.

He said ''a hysterical chorus'' calling for an inquiry into the matter would only ''legitimise these false claims''.

''To consider this matter further without any substantiation to the claims put forward, other than repetition, would simply give credibility to something that has none,'' he said.

The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service issued a statement on Saturday saying no new inquiry or investigation was under way and that the abuse claims were ''assessed at the time they were first made and found to be without foundation''.

''No new evidence has been presented which would warrant further action at this time.''

Fairfax Media stands by its report that Customs will review the information that form the basis of the denials.

After Fairfax published detailed allegations on Thursday from a Sudanese man who says he witnessed sailors forcing the hands of three asylum seekers onto a hot engine pipe, the government and Defence again refused to say why they were so certain the allegations were untrue.

The government has consistently refused to detail the basis of its categorical denials, saying only that operational debriefs were routinely conducted ''as part of normal Border Protection Command procedure''.

The government has previously said Australian authorities have not spoken with the asylum seekers at the heart of the claims.

Fairfax believes a standard ''quick assessment'' was carried out, similar to initial inquiries conducted when Australian Defence Force personnel are involved in incidents while fighting overseas.

This is likely to have involved informal interviews with members of the navy boarding party that undertook the asylum-seeker boat turn-back about January 6.

On Saturday, Labor backbencher Matt Thistlethwaite told Sky News that to settle the issue once and for all, the claims should be independently investigated.

''We should be bringing a healthy scepticism to these claims but now they've been aired again by Fairfax, the appropriate course is to have them independently investigated,'' he said.

''That's the best way to vindicate the Australian Navy [and] I have every confidence in Australian Navy personnel.''

Mr Morrison said Mr Thistlethwaite's call for an independent inquiry was ''a vote of no confidence by Labor in the Australians who serve our country by protecting our borders''.

''Unlike the Labor Party, the government will continue to back our navy and customs personnel in the face of these wild, unsubstantiated allegations,'' Mr Morrison said.

''The fact that media continue to recycle the same wild and unsubstantiated claims does not make them any more true or any more worthy of further inquiry than when they were first reported and rejected. Nothing has changed.''

Burns claims and counterclaims cry out to be tested

Tony Abbott says he has seen nothing to cause him to believe the navy mistreated asylum seekers, but has he looked?

Lenore Taylor political editor
Friday 7 February 2014 03.56 EST

Scott Morrison may very well be right when he says the claims against the navy made by asylum seeker Yousif Ibrahim Fasher are "unfounded".

And when prime minister Tony Abbott asks "Do you believe Australian naval personnel or do you believe people who were attempting to break Australian law?" most people would, instinctively, believe the navy even those who know claiming asylum is not illegal.

But the point is we still don't know what happened for sure.

Fairfax correspondent Michael Bachelard has now conducted another interview with Fasher in which he repeats and expands on his original allegations. His expanded account sticks with his original story and could possibly also explain other accounts, which had been interpreted as contradicting what he had originally said.

This does not mean he is telling the truth. And it does not mean he isn't mistaken about what he saw and heard.

But the reason we don't know for sure is that the claims have not been properly investigated. According to Bachelard, three men, whom Fasher alleges were deliberately burned, are refusing to talk. The government is not allowing the navy to comment in detail.

The Indonesian police says that since the claims are about incidents that allegedly took place in international waters, it is up to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to investigate them. The Australian government says no further investigation, or public information, is necessary because they "know and trust that our navy and Customs and Border Protection Service act in accordance with their training and lawful orders and would only use force where necessary and appropriate to deal with threatening and non-compliant behaviour, as appropriate."

Prime minister Tony Abbott says he has seen nothing to cause him to believe the claims. But we are not sure to what extent the government has even looked. According to Bachelard's report, no Australian official has spoken to the man making the allegations.

This fits with statements by Lieutenant General Angus Campbell at a press conference on 15 January, after the allegations were originally aired, when he said there had been "inside-military and customs services assessment processes to look at the question of what we were doing, what we knew, who was engaged so to essentially create a capacity to characterise whether there's some substance to allegations". Asked whether that process had involved talking to the asylum seekers who had made the allegations he said, "In this particular case, no, it did not."

The government says the Australian media should share its trust, and not report the allegations even just as allegations.

It says we should accept that we will never know exactly what happened because for the navy to give out further information would "help people smugglers".

That argument makes no sense. Releasing video or detailed accounts could only help people smugglers if it somehow impeded or eroded the government's hardline policy of turning around boats. Clear evidence to corroborate Australians' instincts that the navy is probably doing the right thing would only enhance public support for Operation Sovereign Borders and remove any doubts that might have been raised by the claims in other words, it would help the government's cause.

And it would also protect the good reputation of the navy.

Labor will not seek investigation into asylum seeker burn claims

Opposition leader Bill Shorten declares support and confidence in navy, scotching call from MP Matt Thistlethwaite

Helen Davidson
Saturday 8 February 2014 21.47 EST

Labor will not seek an inquiry into allegations that Australian navy personnel held asylum seekers' hands against a hot engine, despite one of its MPs calling for an independent investigation, opposition leader Bill Shorten has said.

Allegations that navy personnel abused asylum seekers during an incident on board an intercepted vessel have been highly contested since their original airing by the ABC and in further investigations by Fairfax media.

"Our navy servicemen and women do an outstanding job on the high seas," a spokesman for Shorten said on Saturday.

"The opposition has every confidence in the skills and professionalism of our navy."

Shorten's statement hoses down calls from the Labor MP Matt Thistlethwaite who had earlier told Sky News an investigation into the allegations was the best way to vindicate the navy.

Although he had confidence in the navy and thought claims against it should be treated with "healthy scepticism", Thistlethwaite said continuing allegations suggested an investigation would be appropriate.

The immigration minister, Scott Morrison, released a lengthy and furious response, accusing Labor of supporting "baseless sledges" against the navy and adding to a "hysterical chorus".

"Bill Shorten and Labor's apparent willingness to believe the lies of people who sought to illegally enter Australia is a shameful attack on the honour and professionalism of our hard-working and dedicated navy and customs personnel who are acting to fix Labor's chaos on our borders," he said.

Morrison also scoffed at media reports that customs officials were conducting inquiries. "The reports are yet another attempt to pump oxygen into these baseless allegations in order to justify their continued repetition in the media."

Fairfax media said on Sunday that it stood by its report. The allegations have been heavily criticised, most recently by defence minister David Johnston on Saturday who dismissed the statements from Yousif Ibrahim Fasher, saying: "He's not even Australian."

Johnston also said in a press conference on Friday that the ABC's report made him "sick to [his] stomach" and called for an inquiry into the national broadcaster.

"The good men and women of the Australian Navy have been maliciously maligned by the ABC and I am very dissatisfied [with] the very weasel words of apology that have been floated around," he said.

"I have not said much because, I have to confess, I was extremely angry. I required some time to cool off."

The prime minister, Tony Abbott, and Morrison have suggested the navy should be believed over the claims of asylum seekers without further inquiry.

The government has repeatedly rejected all allegations but refused to provide details about the incident, including whether or not it was filmed by personnel. The release of any footage "might also help the people smugglers", Abbott said on Friday.

It has been revealed that no Australian authorities have sought to question the men who made the allegations against navy personnel.

The ABC issued a statement last week which said the original report should have been "more precise" but made no apologies for covering the story.

On Saturday a video emerged apparently showing an Australian Navy vessel towing an orange lifeboat in an apparent turnback operation.

Two orange lifeboats carrying asylum seekers have landed on Indonesian beaches in recent weeks. It is believed the vessels are two of the 11 thought to have been bought by the Australian government as part of Operation Sovereign Borders.

New details based on interviews with boat passengers

Asylum seekers protested by jumping into sea but no corroboration of claim that navy deliberately burned passengers

Michael Safi
Monday 10 February 2014 03.59 EST

New details have emerged of what allegedly transpired after Australian navy officers intercepted an asylum seeker boat off the Australian coast and towed it back towards Indonesia, a journey which left four asylum seekers with severe burns to their hands.

A report published by Reuters, based on interviews with five of the passengers on the boat that ran aground on an island near Darwin on New Year's Day, builds on previously reported allegations that asylum seekers were subjected to racist and physical abuse, and denied food, water, and medical care by Australian navy officers.

One of the asylum seekers interviewed, Somalian man Youssif Ibrahim Fasher, also repeated explosive claims that navy officers punished three passengers on the boat by holding their hands to a searing hot exhaust pipe.

The new report details another chaotic incident the previous day at sea, when asylum seekers protested against their detainment by flinging themselves into the ocean. At least 11 leapt into the water, with guards tackling, zip-tying and pepper-spraying others in order to stop them from following.

"We were suffering. People did not prefer life to death," said Faisal Salaad, a witness to the incident interviewed by Reuters.

The interviews also detail why Australian navy officers reportedly restricted passengers to one toilet break per day: fears that the asylum seekers would again sabotage the boat's engine, which navy engineers were struggling to fix in order to dispatch the boat back into Indonesian territory.

It notes that no other passenger could corroborate Fasher's account that navy officers deliberately burned three passengers. The allegations have been denied by the Australian government.

In a statement in response to the latest allegations, immigration minister Scott Morrison said he did not give "credibility to malicious and unfounded slurs".

"I know and trust that our navy and customs and border protection service act in accordance with their training and lawful orders and would only use force where necessary," he told Reuters.

Aunty, burnt by mangling the message

Coalition resentment about the national broadcaster has simmered for years.

The Age
February 11, 2014
Jonathan Holmes

Yesterday, former defence minister Peter Reith told us that the ABC had "got off very lightly, so far, for the claims they aired about the navy torturing asylum seekers".

His language was a good deal less extreme than the current defence minister's, who told us last Friday the ABC had "maliciously maligned" the navy, and that ''if ever there was an event that justified ... (an) investigation of the ABC, this is it''.

That same morning Fairfax Media had published text and video from its Jakarta correspondent, Michael Bachelard: a detailed, forensic interview with a man who claims to have seen with his own eyes three asylum-seekers having their hands held on a hot exhaust pipe, both as a punishment and as an example to others.

When asked to respond to that account, Defence Minister David Johnston scoffed: ''When you give me something to act upon that is more than just hearsay, innuendo and rumour, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Apparently, eye-witness accounts are just rumour and innuendo. After all, Johnston told The Weekend Australian, "he's not even Australian".

Yet neither Johnston nor anyone else has attacked Fairfax Media for hating the navy, or for not backing the home team, and no one has demandedFairfax Media apologise for publishing this dastardly allegation.

Of course, the ABC was already in the coalition's sights in a way that Fairfax is not. The "burnt hands" story blew the lid off a pressure-cooker in which Coalition resentment of the ABC has been bubbling for years. It was already near to bursting, thanks to the ABC's role in breaking the story about Australia monitoring Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's telephone calls.

But if the ABC's stories on January 22 had been backed by an interview as compelling as Bachelard's, I suspect there would have been far less sound and fury.

They weren't. The ABC had some video of men with burnt hands, but no first-hand account of how they got the burns.

The ABC claimed that the Indonesian police "backed" the asylum-seekers claims about navy ill-treatment - but then had to tone down the claim when West Timor's police chief Sam Kawengian would not say on camera what he'd said the day before on the phone.

The man Bachelard interviewed, Yousif Ibrahim Fasher, had been interviewed by the ABC's Peter Lloyd back on January 8: but he made no mention then of deliberate hand burning, nor was he asked about it. (Odd, because he had already made the allegation to Indonesia Kompas's website and to Agence France Presse.

Since then, the ABC hasn't managed to interview either Yousif or any of the three men who he claims had their hands deliberately burnt. Bachelard reports that all three are refusing to talk to the media, for fear doing so will get them in trouble with the Indonesians, the International Organisation for Migration, or the Australian government.

ABC News has confirmed to me that it, too, has tried, and failed, to interview the three men.

On Thursday January 30, ABC Jakarta correspondent George Roberts did travel to Kupang and interview some of the asylum-seekers himself. One, Boby Nooris, said he had been burnt when he was blinded by capsicum spray and grabbed hold of a hot engine exhaust pipe.

But in airing that crucial story on January 31 the ABC simply did not address its earlier allegations. Was Nooris one of those who had claimed to have been deliberately burned? What was now the status of those claims? We were simply left wondering.

Small wonder that the following Monday, Media Watch came down hard on ABC News. "It now seems the burns occurred in a scuffle with the navy, and were not deliberately inflicted by navy personnel," said Paul Barry. "We believe ABC News got it wrong."

Well, in the light of Bachelard's interview with Yousif , published four days later, that conclusion now seems a tad premature. We still simply don't know.

But the view I expressed two weeks ago that Roberts' original reports were for the most part "sober and factual" doesn't hold up either. The ABC simply didn't have the ammunition to air such contentious allegations.

And because it didn't, the government and the navy have been able to refuse to give us any information at all.

But not to worry. Sydney Morning Herald columnist and navy tragic Mike Carlton's secret sources have told him what really happened.

"Somewhere north of Christmas Island," he wrote on Saturday, "a party of sailors from the frigate HMAS Parramatta boarded an Indonesian fishing boat."

Mike, one thing that everyone agrees on is that whatever occurred, it happened nowhere near Christmas Island. The boat in question was being towed from somewhere north of Darwin to Rote Island, a couple of hundred kilometres west.

Ah well. Just a detail. I'm sure the rest of the account fed to Carlton is spot on. A scuffle in the engine room resulted in two people (three people? four?) sustaining almost identical burns.

And what about those incursions by navy ships into Indonesian territorial waters? Yousif has maintained the navy ship escorting his boat towed it to within a few kilometres of the coast of Rote, at dead of night, with navigation lights turned off.

Carlton's sources tell him that the incursions were "a disaster, almost incomprehensible in the era of pinpoint satellite navigation... As one admiral told me this week through gritted teeth: 'They f---ed up.'"

Part of the secret program to ensure the boats go back to where they came from? Or a just a mighty, incomprehensible f--k up?

I know which I think sounds more likely. But that mystery, too, will remain unresolved. The messenger has been shot, and the message buried at sea.

Jonathan Holmes is a columnist and a former presenter of the ABC's Media Watch program.

Still killing the ABC: the ghost of BA Santamaria

The Age
February 8, 2014
Mike Carlton

There is a wonderful video doing the rounds on Twitter showing the late and unlamented B.A. Santamaria ranting about the evils of the ABC.

For those who've just joined us, Santamaria was a prominent Cold War political agitator of the hard Right, a religious bigot and red-baiter, and an economic crank who believed Australian prosperity would rise from the agrarian toil of a pious Catholic peasantry. Notoriously, he was a mentor to the young Tony Abbott.

Recorded some 30 years ago, the video is a side-splitter. There is the long and oh-so familiar jeremiad about the leftist conspiracy at the ABC. Then, grimacing like some dyspeptic goblin, Santa launches into a denunciation of ''aberrant sexual practices''. The national broadcaster had been ''publicly financing the transfers of not only the de facto wives of its employees, but of their homosexual partners as well,'' it turns out. ''Subsidies for sodomy," he thunders. How frightful.

Fast forward to our time. Nothing changes. With the Abbottistas in power, the right-wing war on the ABC is as ideologically constipated as ever, the only new wrinkle being that ''latte-sipping'' and ''inner-city types'' have been added to the lexicon of abuse.

Sadly, though, the ABC has shot itself in the foot with its clumsy account of asylum seekers allegedly tortured by the navy. Sure, the story should have been reported. But it was a sloppy effort without the rigorous scepticism required, and loose scripting gave open slather to the ABC's enemies, the self-styled culture warriors. Over the top they went.

Abbott's demand that the ABC should cheer for ''the Home Team'' was pure Vladimir Putin. At the Murdoch press, the usual gaggle of toadying Tory columnists queued to put in the boot like beer-garden brawlers. The Australian, local flagship of the media empire that gave Britain the criminal conspiracy of the phone-hacking scandal, rocketed into a crescendo of daily editorial outrage. All of them chose to ignore the inconvenient truth that, almost simultaneously, ABC News was breaking the story with Fairfax Media about bikie and criminal involvement in the CFMEU trade union. Hardly a leftist conspiracy, that one.

The Oz's sermons on journalistic ethics and the importance of facts are always a hoot, coming as they do from an organ that got it so crashingly wrong about the entire Iraq war from go to whoa. Under its combative editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, this once-proud newspaper has prostituted itself to become a propaganda sheet for the Liberal Party and a megaphone for Rupert Murdoch's commercial ambitions and increasingly erratic political and economic nostrums.

Reading this stuff is akin to getting a lecture on bushwalking from Ivan Milat.

* * * *

The navy is wearily accustomed to the tripe so often written about it in the media. Blithely ignorant, journalists who wouldn't know port from starboard blather on about maritime doctrine and strategy.

Some of it is beyond ludicrous, largely resting on ironclad cliches, of which the top three are: the admirals are gold-braided dolts, the Collins class submarines are catastrophically expensive duds, and the service remains addicted to rum, sodomy and the lash.

Myths, each one of them. The top brass, all with serious post-graduate qualifications, are better educated for their jobs than most journalists I know. Despite what you've been told, the Collins boats are a unique triumph of Australian shipbuilding technology, the spear point of our maritime defences and intelligence, with years of service ahead of them. And there is no more sexual harassment or bullying in the navy than, say, in the office towers of the Sydney CBD.

So here's what my navy sources tell me about those refugees with the burnt hands. Somewhere north of Christmas Island, a party of sailors from the frigate HMAS Parramatta boarded an Indonesian fishing boat.

Some went below to secure the engine-room and were accosted by angry male passengers who were trying to disable the engine. A scuffle broke out. One man apparently set fire to a fuel-soaked rag. A sailor used pepper spray to subdue them. In the uproar, blinded by the fumes, two panicked asylum seekers grabbed hold of hot engine pipes.

The refugees have another story, but I accept this one. Deliberate torture would be impossible to keep secret in the confines of a naval vessel. Such an episode would have got out eventually. It just didn't happen.

* * * *

But now the reverse of the medal. The blundering incursion into Indonesian territorial waters by Parramatta and its sister ship HMAS Stuart was a disaster, almost incomprehensible in the era of pinpoint satellite navigation.

Five times they did it, neither ship aware nor concerned it had happened. This despite the absolute diplomatic and military imperative of not upsetting the Indonesians. As one admiral told me this week through gritted teeth: "They f---ed up."

But it gets worse. Scott Morrison & Co would like you to believe the turn-back-the-boats show is seamlessly run by the new Operation Sovereign Borders, headed by the now famous Lieutenant General Angus Campbell. In fact it's not. Bizarrely, there are no fewer than four different commands with a piece of the action, often overlapping.

They are Northern Command, based in Darwin, nominally in charge of land, sea and air operations in the Top End and the theatre beyond. Border Protection Command, which covers the entire Australian coastline. The new Joint Agency Task Force, aka Campbell's Sovereign Borders. And finally, Joint Operations Command, which controls the whole Australian Defence Force worldwide from its spanking new HQ in Canberra.

I'm told it was Northern Command that blew it. It should have known what Parramatta and Stuart were up to, but failed to restrain or control them until way too late. That is another shocker. The grim reality is that Northern Command is a creaking anachronism left over from 1942, with little naval expertise. It should have been abolished years ago.

Given this government's mania for secrecy, it's likely the official report on this fiasco will be heavily censored when it comes out sometime next week.

But the navy and the ADF will still have to eat the proverbial faecal focaccia, and grin through gritted teeth while doing it. They will cop a heavy kicking from the media, and in this case deservedly so.

Expect heads to roll.

Claims of ABC dominance fail the fact check

Commercial media are losing advertising, not audience. You can't blame Aunty for that.

The Age
February 19, 2014
Russell Skelton

Gay Alcorn's swipe at the ABC's Fact Check unit on these pages on February 14 was part of a broader assertion that publicly funded journalism at the ABC is a danger to private enterprise.

I note that her column appeared on the same day that the latest newspaper circulation figures appeared. The major newspaper companies proudly pointed to their combined online and print sales - arguing that never before had they attracted so many readers.

So the argument that the taxpayer-funded ABC is robbing commercial rivals of customers is contradicted by her own industry.

The ABC established Fact Check because it needs to be involved in innovative journalism: it is part of its charter. This is also what the ABC audience wants and is entitled to. The ABC fact checking cuts through the deeply polarised political and media world that news consumers are attempting to make sense of. It is hard to imagine a better use of valuable taxpayer money by the public broadcaster.

As to our productivity and success, the facts - as we like to say - speak for themselves: in the seven months of ABC Fact Check, we have produced 110 online fact checks, more than 40 items for television and countless radio segments. Our social media following grows by the week and we are proud that our most popular items attract more unique page views than the weekday quality broadsheet newspaper has buyers.

Since we began publishing in August 2013, Fact Check has had a noticeable impact on the national debate. Our checks on issues during the election campaign, including carbon emissions and creative accounting, saw all sides of politics change their language. Since then we've noticed that public debate is often framed by the rhetoric of facts. The parties have begun talking in the language of ''facts'', and we regularly notice MPs changing their tune after a fact check - maybe they adjust their comments, or maybe they stop using a particular line altogether.

And it's not just politicians who are taking note. Our audience is vocal and engaged, and our reach on social media platforms is growing. It's online where our impact is most visible. Our work is questioned - and defended - by all sides.

And it's shared, too, over and over again by people who tell us they're glad there's someone sifting through the he-said, she-said of the news cycle and bringing them the whole picture. During the election we had many people writing to us, saying they hoped Fact Check would stick around once the campaign wrapped up. We did, and the response has been resoundingly positive.

Finally, I am mystified why Alcorn in her commentary provides Peter Fray, the publisher of the defunct PolitiFact website, with a platform to criticise ABC Fact Check without seeking a response from me. PolitiFact, as Alcorn did acknowledge, failed because it was abandoned by its business partners, Fairfax Media and the Seven Network, and could not attract new investors. A ''Big ABC'' did not kill it.

Indeed, Fray's short-lived PolitiFact was a US franchised operation that sat unhappily in the political landscape with its tabloid ''TruthOmeter''.

Fact checking has been a valued part of the media landscape in the US, the UK and Europe for many years.

As the Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has consistently pointed out, Fairfax and News Corp have a revenue problem, not a readership one.

If public broadcasting was the reason for the malaise, why are newspaper companies in the US, where there is no public broadcasting of any scale, suffering badly?

Russell Skelton is editor of ABC Fact Check.

Burnt hands, children overboard, it all seems the same to Peter Reith

In complaining about ABC bias, Peter Reith was unwise to draw a parallel with the children overboard affair - the way the allegations against the navy have been handled are too reminiscent of 2001

David Marr
Tuesday 11 February 2014 01.31 EST

Now Peter Reith is whining about ABC bias, and the hard time the national broadcaster gave him in the children overboard affair. Really? Was there no old friend to warn the former minister for defence not to go there, to stay well clear of the great controversy of the Howard years?

"Mr Reith," said the ABC's Virginia Trioli, "there is nothing in this photo that indicates these people either jumped or were thrown." She was right. But Reith kept insisting the blurred, uncaptioned photograph was proof that ruthless asylum seekers had thrown their children into the sea.

That 2001 exchange with Trioli would come to haunt Reith. The navy knew no children had been thrown overboard. The navy had already warned the minister's office the photographs were of another rescue on another day. Their use grossly misrepresented the truth.

As Trioli kept pressing, Reith kept claiming he had the navy on his side. Mounting his high horse, he said: "You may want to question the veracity of reports of the Royal Australian Navy. I don't."

Now in the Fairfax press Reith is reiterating his plea of innocence - "I believed the children overboard story to be true at the time" - and damning the ABC for trying "to undermine the efforts of the new government to stop the boats. It is a classic case of bias."

How the allegation of burnt hands brings back those sordid weeks as Howard and his ministers twisted and turned to keep the truth from coming out before the nation went to the polls in November 2001.

Then and now the press was not allowed anywhere near the navy; all questions were routed through the office of the minister of defence; and any doubts raised about the military operation against the boats was met with a blast of Advance Australia Fair. To question was close to treason.

As the government hid behind the navy, the military was trying to compel Reith to face the fact that no children had been flung into the sea. Brigadier Mike Silverstone told Reith "no children were thrown overboard". Air Vice Marshall Angus Houston told Reith in front of a witness recruited for the purpose: "There was nothing to suggest that women and children had been thrown into the water."

Then as now, the minister refused to release the video of the operation. The navy videos everything. Then, as now, obscure "operational" reasons were said to make it impossible to put the evidence on the table.

One thing has changed since then: to a remarkable degree, the press accepted the secrecy flung round Howard's operation to turn back the boats in 2001. That's not so now and it is not so largely because of the children overboard affair, because it all blew up in the government's face.

Why isn't Reith bemoaning the bias of News Limited? It was the Australian, a few days before the poll, that reported sailors on Christmas Island denying kids had gone over the rail. It was a fine scoop.

The press returned to the story with a vengeance. Vice Admiral David Shackleton, surrounded by the press at a ceremonial farewell for a couple of ships leaving for the Gulf, admitted the truth about the children on that refugee boat: "It doesn't appear they were thrown in."

That afternoon Reith's office forcefully demanded the admiral retract. He did what he could to back the minister. That night Howard faced questions from the ABC, entirely professional questions.

"Who was it that convinced Admiral Shackleton to make this new statement?" asked Tony Jones. Howard obfuscated. "I certainly didn't speak to him and I didn't ask the defence minister to speak to him ..." He refused to answer Jones's questions about Reith's photographs.

Next day the prime minister won a third, mighty victory at the polls. The truth came out, of course, as the truth does. Howard's reputation never recovered. Reith's went down the toilet. Relations between the navy and the government hit a historic low.

But all Reith can remember a decade or so later is how awful the ABC was to him. "The ABC's bias is cultural, deeply ingrained and not about to stop," he wrote in his Fairfax column. Well, on the evidence of the children overboard scandal, that calls for a round of applause. Pity News Limited has, in the burnt hands affair, come down on the side of secrecy.

Now as then, the big question is what the navy is telling the minister for defence, the splendidly indignant David Johnston. Of course, we would like to see the video of the New Year's Day pushback. And it might be an idea to turn off the national anthem.

David Marr and Marian Wilkinson are the authors of Dark Victory, about the Tampa, the children overboard affair and the Pacific solution

Two-thirds of voters want a Navy hand burns inquiry

Two-thirds of voters believe there should be an inquiry into allegations the Navy deliberately burnt the hands of asylum seekers, a Fairfax-Nielsen poll finds

Sydney Morning Herald
February 18, 2014
Mark Kenny

Two-thirds of voters, including more than half of all Coalition supporters, believe claims that the hands of asylum seekers were deliberately burned by border protection authorities should be investigated.

The Abbott government refuses to launch an investigation into the claims, and has criticised media organisations such as the ABC as ''malicious'' for reporting them. The result comes from the latest Fairfax-Nielsen poll conducted among 1400 voters across the country from Thursday to Saturday last week.

The ABC has also been strongly supported in the survey. Just three in 10 voters viewed the publicly funded national broadcaster as politically biased, and 59 per cent said it was not.

Asked if they thought allegations that the navy had deliberately burned the hands of asylum seekers warranted an investigation, two-thirds of respondents, or 66 per cent, answered yes.

Even among Liberal and Nationals voters, the proportion in favour of an investigation was safely in a majority at 55 per cent. Those satisfied with the claims being dismissed as hearsay was 31 per cent.

Among ALP supporters the ratio in favour of investigation was 75 per cent - a figure which jumped to 88 per cent among Greens voters.

The government launched an unprecedented attack on the ABC earlier this month for reporting that Indonesian police were investigating allegations that Australian navy personnel forced asylum seekers to hold on to burning hot engine pipes aboard their boat as a form of punishment.

The initial story showed graphic photographs of burnt hands along with the suggestion that the injuries appeared to support the torture claims. The ABC subsequently acknowledged that its report may have lent too much weight to veracity of the torture allegations, but stood by the story from Jakarta correspondent George Roberts.

However, its reportage became a focal point for conservative-led attacks alleging the ABC was left-leaning and culturally biased against the Coalition.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott complained the ABC too often took ''everyone's side but Australia's''.

Defence Minister David Johnston attacked ABC management for using ''weasel words'' to justify its reporting.

While the Abbott government has railed against the ABC, 67 per cent of respondents said they believed it provided a more balanced presentation of news than commercial television news services. Just 15 per cent trusted commercial television news more.

Even among conservative voters, 53 per cent said the ABC was the more balanced television provider. Among the 31 per cent who felt the ABC was biased, a third called it ''pro-ALP'', 15 per cent said it was ''left-wing'', and another 7 per cent described it as ''anti-Coalition''.

Just 1 per cent branded it ''un-Australian'' or ''anti-Australian''.

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This page is the second one in a 2-part series about the same topic - the 2014 asylum seeker burn and beating allegations reported by the ABC. Click on the 'back arrow' image to go directly to the Previous page.