The Truth-Silencers Demand the Truth: In Defence Of The ABC


It’s not a reporting error by the ABC over the rape of a child that should outrage Australians, writes Mark Isaacs.

The Immigration Department, which has repeatedly misled the Australian public regarding incidents within its offshore detention program, has attacked the ABC for making a factual error in a news story about asylum seekers.

This is the same department which sacked 10 Save the Children social workers after accusing them of coaching asylum seekers to lie about trauma and assaults. In the subsequent inquiry into the dismissals, the accusations proved to be false; instead the inquiry found evidence of rape, sexual assault of minors, and guards trading marijuana for sexual favours from female asylum seekers.

This is the same department which incorrectly blamed asylum seekers for starting the violence in Manus Island detention centre that led to the eventual murder of Reza Berati.

This is the same department which effectively bans journalists from visiting Nauru’s detention centre, threatens whistleblowers with jail terms and refuses to comment about on-water matters.

When Michael Pezzullo, the Immigration Department chief, referred to the ABC’s error as “advocacy parading as journalism”, I expected the worst. So what did the ABC do exactly? Well, the broadcaster admitted to an error in a story that claimed a five-year-old was raped at Nauru, after it confused two different medical cases recounted by paediatrician Dr Karen Zwi.

In actual fact, there are two cases to be concerned by: a case of a 12-year-old who was raped, and a case of a 5-year-old who was allegedly sexually assaulted.

Just to clear this up, and no you haven’t read this wrong: the Immigration Department is outraged that the ABC misreported the age of a child sexual assault victim who they plan to return to Nauru to face his attacker. It was a 12-year-old who was raped, not a 5-year-old. Aren’t we glad we cleared that up. Let’s send him back to Nauru then.

This hasn’t stopped Michael Pezzullo and the Department calling the 5-year-old “a figment” and at the same time demanding the 12-year-old be referred to as an ‘alleged’ rape victim.

Dr Karen Zwi stands by her claim that the child was raped. When it comes down to who to believe, Dr Zwi or the Department of Immigration, it’s hard to place my trust in a department that is most comfortable denying the Australian public information.

DIBP, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t prevent information, obscure the truth, mistreat people behind your veil of secrecy, and then demand perfect reporting.

If you really want journalists to report better, allow them access to detention centres.

Attacking the ABC was the oft-repeated tactic of the Abbott government to deflect attention away from its own failures. In this case, all it has done is demonstrate the department’s own inability for self-reflection, it’s lack of impartiality for a branch of the supposedly independent public service and its callousness towards the people entrusted in its care.


Mark Isaacs was a former employee of the Salvation Army in the Nauru Regional Processing Centre. He published The Undesirables: Inside Nauru (Hardie Grant 2014), an account of his experiences in the offshore detention centre system. He continues to work with asylum seekers in Sydney, Australia and writes about social justice issues.