Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has accused Guardian Australia of impeding his officials’ efforts to investigate 2100 reports of alleged abuse that he says were leaked to the news website by charity Save The Children.
Mr Dutton, who touted the imminent closure of the Manus Island detention centre as a success, attacked Guardian Australia and the ABC of working to “defame” him and “trivialise” the refugee issue by overstating the allegations contained in the leaked “Nauru files”.
The furore came amid news that the Sri Lankan Navy had detained a suspected boatload of Australia-bound asylum-seekers, and as Mr Dutton touted the closure of the Manus Island regional processing centre as a success.
Save The Children strenuously denied Mr Dutton’s claim that it “leaked the documents” to Guardian Australia and said the government had not asked it for further detail about the allegations raised by the incident reports.
A Guardian Australia spokeswoman said: “Guardian Australia had the unredacted documents. We were very careful to redact them in order to protect the privacy of the individuals named.
“We see no reason to provide the government with documents it already has and we are also mindful of the need to protect our sources.”
Mr Dutton, a former Queensland policeman, said he took the allegations of abuse “very seriously” and criticised Guardian Australia for not providing unredacted versions of their documents which he argues would help officials match the cases to their records.
“It doesn’t help that in the files, that were leaked by Save the Children, they (Guardian Australia) have only put out a redacted version. We’ve asked them for all of the details,” he told ABC radio.
“Of course, because they’re running a political campaign, they haven’t released that information, won’t provide it to the department.”
Mr Dutton trained his attack on Guardian Australia and the ABC, saying he would not “be defamed” by the media outlets.
“The trouble, frankly with the approach of the Guardian and the ABC has been to trivialise the very serious issues by trying to promote the 2100 reports as somehow, all of those being serious when they’re not,” he said.
“Many of those reports relate to corporal punishment by children by their own parents. They report about some minor assaults by detainees on detainees, refugees on refugees.”
Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy mocked Mr Dutton on social media.
“Wicked Guardian, wicked ABC, wicked inconvenient facts. Wickedness,” Murphy tweeted.
“Maybe it’s not the Guardian and the ABC that’s the problem. Perhaps it’s that false binary and that expensive, amoral, unsustainable policy?”
The ABC’s Michael Brissenden, who interviewed Mr Dutton, told the minister it was “unfair” to criticise him for simply asking whether the Guardian Australia reports were true.
Save The Children, which provide services on Nauru between August 2013 and October 2015, insisted it did not leak the documents as claimed by Mr Dutton.
“We have respected the terms of our contract with the Australian government, the provisions of the Australian Border Force Act, and the confidentiality of our clients that prevents us from speaking publicly about the specific incidents and conditions that our staff witnessed in the Nauru detention centre,” spokesman Mat Tinkler said.
“The government has a history of shooting the messenger when it comes to matters relating to Nauru — instead they should be focusing on keeping people safe and urgently finding humane and sustainable resettlement options for the hundreds languishing on the island.”
The Immigration Department in October 2014 removed 10 of the charity’s workers from Nauru amid claims they had coached asylum-seekers to protest, including by harming themselves. The staff were exonerated by the independent Moss Review in early 2015, although the government has refused to apologise to them.
Mr Dutton also announced the Sri Lankan Navy had intercepted 18 people who boarded a fishing vessel in Valaichchenai, on the country’s east coast, bound for Australia.
He suspected the venture may have been linked to the boatload of six asylum-seekers who were intercepted at sea by Australian authorities and returned to Sri Lanka earlier this week.
“To families here in Australia who have loved ones overseas that may be considering such a venture, tell them not to risk their lives or waste their money by attempting to come illegally by boat to Australia,” Mr Dutton said.
The Manus Island regional processing centre will be closed following a Papua New Guinean court decision ruling the centre illegal. Mr Dutton insisted the detainees would not come to Australia.
“We have a look at these people to help them return back to their country of origin or they settle in PNG. They are the two options available to these people,” he said.
“We’ve got every child out of detention, we’ve closed 17 detention centres on the mainland that Labor opened and I believe that has been a great dividend of Operation Sovereign Borders and the closure of Manus will be the next dividend in the success of stopping the boats.”
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