The ABC's Bougainville deception


By Max Watts
and Norm Dixon

ABC Television's Foreign Correspondent program on June 12 screened a lengthy report by the ABC's resident Port Moresby correspondent, Sean Dorney, on the situation in the blockaded island of Bougainville. It purported to show that the people of Bougainville no longer supported the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, had taken up arms against it, and that the BRA was responsible for widespread rape, torture and killings.

Dorney went to great lengths to discredit evidence of human rights violations by PNG troops collected by human rights campaigner Rosemarie Gillespie. The program was timed to coincide with UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, where Gillespie's evidence was to be presented.

The program presented a highly distorted picture based on deliberate omissions, falsifications and manipulation of facts. It was the most dishonest program on Bougainville ever screened.

Dorney stated early in the program that the ABC team "entered Bougainville with the blessing of the PNG civilian government and the PNG military". However, the local PNGDF commanders refused to "help" or "talk" to Dorney and his crew. Only areas controlled by the PNGDF and its collaborators were visited.

Dorney claimed that the BRA refused his team entry to areas it controlled and BRA commander Francis Ona has issued an order for the journalist and his crew to be killed. Dorney did not, however, tell us whether he was accompanied on his travels by PNG troops. If not, then who provided his crew with protection?

This is no small point, as Dorney was in an area at war, in a region occupied by troops with a well-documented record of human rights violations against those sympathetic to the BRA. If he travelled with, and was protected by, PNG troops, then any answers given by Bougainvilleans in interviews would hardly be expected to be uninfluenced by that fact.

Ona, who is also president of the Republic of Bougainville, on June 7 "denied categorically" that a death threat was issued. The allegations were "a mere excuse ... for the PNGDF not to allow the team to go to non-PNG-controlled areas". The ABC "decided not to even bother about advising the Interim Government of their plans to go ahead with such a visit".

Despite ample discussions between the program's producer and activists with knowledge of the situation in Bougainville, information that undermined Dorney's aim of discrediting evidence of human rights violations by PNG was ignored or edited out.

Dorney focused on just two of Gillespie's statutory declarations. The first concerned the drowning by the PNG military of two boys at ys were captured by the PNG military near Asatavi, taken to the beach and forced to commit sodomy on each other. They were then tied together and left at the low water mark to drown.

Dorney interviewed a Catholic priest from the mission, Benedict His. His said that this never happened because he would have heard about it because his house is just 50 metres from the beach. This witness's statements were used then and later in presenter George Negus' summing up to discredit Gillespie.

What Dorney and Negus did not disclose was that Benedict His is a former chaplain with officer's rank in the PNGDF. He is also a close friend of Sam Tulo, the PNG-appointed administrator of Bougainville. Bougainville Interim Government UN representative Mike Forster, who watched the program the morning before it went to air, informed Negus of this and stated it during an interview recorded to be broadcast following Dorney's report. That information did not appear in Dorney's report and was edited out of Forster's interview.

The second statutory declaration concerned the beating of nurses detained at the Arawa General Hospital by the PNGDF when it occupied the capital on February 14. Dorney interviewed Arawa General Hospital's Matron Rose Tsiroats in Wakunai, where the PNGDF's main Bougainville base is. Dorney did not disclose this, and a clear impression was left that the interview was conducted in Arawa by the use of footage of the destroyed Arawa hospital immediately prior to her appearance.

Forster in his interview with Negus pointed out that Rose Tsiroats is not free to leave the army-occupied area, and any statement she makes is as valid as any statement of any prisoner in a situation where reprisals can occur. That too was cut.

Viewers did not hear the question Dorney asked Tsiroats. What they heard was Dorney's commentary as scenes of the destroyed Arawa hospital were shown. "According to the statutory declarations we had, the PNG soldiers beat the nurses around the head with rifle butts", Dorney's voice-over said. He immediately continued with: "The BRA also claims the nurses were raped." At this point Rose Tsiroats appears on camera and says: "No, that is not true." But what did she deny: the charges of beatings or the claims of rape? Contacted in Vienna, Rosemarie Gillespie confirmed that she had never claimed that the nurses had been raped. She was unable to get any details of what happened to the nurses, because they were prisoners of the PNG military. The only statement she made concerning sexual harassment was that the women were taken to the river to wash by the PNG military and that the guards watched them, which is considered very bad in Bougainville culture. There were, however, witnesses who saw the nurses being beaten.

At the end of the program George Negus informed viewers that one of Sean Dorney's informants, Peter Sepe, had been killed by the BRA since the program had been prepared. He gave the clear impression that Sepe had been killed because he spoke to the ABC. In fact, Peter Sepe was shot by BRA forces defending Aropa airport on June 8 when the PNG military, with whom he was fighting, stormed ashore in an effort to recapture it. Mike Forster also corrected the impression given by Negus during his interview, but that too was excluded. (It has since been learned that Sepe was not killed by his wounds.)

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.