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A man seeking asylum displays burns on his hand. He claims the injuries were caused by Australian Navy personnel. ABC's video however offered no evidence to support this claim. (Credit: ABC, Screenshot)

The Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) has been slammed for its report about allegations that the Australian Navy mistreated asylum seekers.

The ABC has backed off somewhat from its claims, issuing a statement earlier this month that admitted the language in its report could have been more “precise.”

But that’s not enough, critics, including Australia’s Prime Minister say. They want the ABC to apologize.

The ABC’s own media watchdog program, ABC Media Watch, even criticized the ABC news report, saying it “over-reached.”

The ABC’s reporting on asylum seekers

In question was The ABC News’ report saying asylum seekers were injured by the Australian Navy. Specifically, the ABC reported in early January that a group of people wanting asylum in Australia were stopped by the Navy and the Navy turned their boat around to Indonesia. On the way back, the report claimed the Navy abused them.

The Navy denies any abuse.

Media Watch traced how the asylum seekers mistreatment story has been covered in the media. According to Media Watch, “claims of burns and torture first surfaced on Indonesian news sites on 7th January” and then on Jan. 8, the Agence France Presse reported on the claims, quoting two of the asylum seekers.

According to the AFP, there were “45 immigrants, mostly from Somalia and Sudan, who set off from Indonesia.”  Two of the asylum seekers are quoted as saying the Navy was guilty of “verbal and physical mistreatment.”

The story hit the Australian media, including the ABC, within days.

Almost two weeks later, on Jan. 22, the ABC reported again on the claims, and aired a video that it said showed injuries to the asylum seekers. As evidence, the ABC cited “Indonesian authorities” as confirming the story. According to a transcript of the report, the ABC’s Tim Palmer said

“New footage appears to back asylum seekers’ claims of mistreatment by the Australian Navy.”

While the ABC’s Indonesia correspondent George Roberts acknowledged “the claim were hard to verify,” he then said, “Now footage taken that week and obtained by the ABC News shows medics inspecting what appears to be severe burns and blisters on the palms of several asylum seekers’ hands.”

But, the ABC didn’t have any concrete evidence of how or why the people had injuries. And, as the asylum seekers would likely be highly motivated to make attention-seeking claims, the ABC should have specifically added this fact for context in iMediaEthics’ view.

iMediaEthics has asked the ABC for more information about its report and further comment. We’ve also asked the Australian Navy for a response. We’ll update with any additional information.

The ABC Statement responds to criticism, admits language wasn’t “precise”

The ABC did issue a statement responding to criticism of its Jan. 22 report. The Feb. 4 statement, published on its website, was from ABC Managing Director Mark Scott and Director of News Kate Torney. It read in part:

“This is an important story and the ABC makes no apologies for covering it. In the course of carrying out its work, the ABC’s own reporting has come under criticism. It is important to be clear about how we have gone about covering this story.”

The ABC defended its reporting, noting it reported the claim, and that the “Navy denied the allegations but provided no further information.”

While as a whole, the ABC stood by its reporting, it did admit its wording about a video that allegedly showed “asylum seekers with burns” wasn’t right.

“The ABC’s initial reports on the video said that the vision appeared to support the asylum seekers’ claims. That’s because it was the first concrete evidence that the injuries had occurred. What the video did not do was establish how those injuries occurred.

“The wording around the ABC’s initial reporting needed to be more precise on that point. We regret if our reporting led anyone to mistakenly assume that the ABC supported the asylum seekers’ claims. The ABC has always presented the allegations as just that – claims worthy of further investigation.”

Regardless of that concession, the ABC continued to defend its reporting and how it covered the story:

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“The ABC has not attempted to play judge and jury on this matter. We have reported the asylum seeker claims, broadcast the video showing burns and consistently sought more detail from witnesses and officials.

“The release of the video, and asking further questions in the light of it, was in the public interest and remains so. Our journalists will continue to investigate and cover this story, and we will continue to urge Australian authorities and the Government to disclose more to the Australian public about the events on board those boats.”

 

Media watchdog calls for an explanation

Media Watch, the ABC’s own media watchdog, slammed the ABC for the Jan. 22 video report.

Its Feb 3 episode devoted 11 minutes to the controversy over the ABC’s asylum seekers coverage.

Media Watch wrote that the ABC “over-reached” in its report.

“This is where the ABC over-reached, by essentially endorsing the allegations of Navy mistreatment on radio, TV and online throughout the day,” it concluded.

Media Watch went on to explain problems with the ABC report:

“Because even if the police did back the asylum seekers’ claims, there was no way of knowing they were true. It now seems the burns occurred in a scuffle with the Navy. And were not deliberately inflicted by Navy personnel. We believe ABC News got it wrong.

“And if so … it needs to admit it, to find out how the mistake was made, and to make sure it will not happen again.”

Prime minister : “I wonder why sorry seems to be the hardest word for them”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott also joined in on the criticism and said he wants the ABC to apologize, The Australian reported.

Abbott called the claims about the Navy “extremely damaging” and said, “I wonder why sorry seems to be the hardest word for them.”

He went on: “I just found myself very disappointed, as I think many Australians did, with that story.”

In another interview, Abbott said, “If a very serious allegation was being made that Australian Navy personnel effectively tortured people, well you’d think any responsible news outlet, let alone the voice of Australia – the ABC – would have sought corroboration before broadcasting them.”

The ABC Managing Director says it won’t apologize

Despite the calls for an apology, the ABC managing director Mark Scott said the ABC wouldn’t apologize over the reports, according to a Feb 6 ABC story.

Scott said on ABC Local radio that the network defends “the thrust of the story.” He also defended the ABC’s opinion of the Australian Navy (“we do greatly respect and admire” it, he said) but said the story was important to get out there.

“I think there are some suggestions here that those allegations should not have been reported, there’s some suggestion here that that video tape should not have been aired,” he is quoted as saying.

Scott went on:

“We stand by that, we stand by the thrust of the story, and I think it is important that we be judged on that story. … It’s our role as journalists to ask those questions and that’s what our news team has been doing, and I back them in doing it.”

 

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Were Asylum Seekers ‘burned,’ tortured by Australian Navy? ABC Said so

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