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Monday, June 06, 2016

Immigration's 'nothing to hide call' in withholding Manus documents open to conjecture

I had a cameo in ABC Lateline's story last Thursday on the release of a 68-page document obtained  under freedom of information concerning the alleged rape of a Papua New Guinean woman by three Australian security guards in July last year. The reporter Jason Om has written the story here.

ABC: Brigid Andersen
The most important issue of course is the incident, the allegation and the decision of the  Australian government contractor to whisk the three alleged perpetrators out of PNG as quickly as possible.

The Freedom of Information issue is that Immigration and Border Protection took six months to process the application for reports of the incident and ended up redacting just about everything the documents contained. 

All the pages (at the end of Jason Om's report), most completely blank, are marked s 22 (irrelevant material), s 33 (would or could reasonably be expected to damage international relations) and 47F (unreasonable disclosure of personal information and disclosure on balance contrary to the public interest.)

I only saw the notice of decision briefly in ABC studios before the interview but reasons given for the damage to international relations claim looked skimpy and hardly unconvincing.  

The Department in a media release next day highlighted the primary reliance on the personal information exemption, which was not mentioned in the ABC reports. They would seem to have merit although its hard to imagine just about every page has been properly withheld on that basis. 

The media release explains the basis for the damage to international relations claim is the "ongoing investigation by the Papua New Guinean (PNG) authorities.....As with investigations conducted by Australian law enforcement agencies, it would be inappropriate for the Department to release information regarding an ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by another sovereign nation."
Whether their view about what's inappropriate equates to damage to relations and whether disclosure of just about everything in the 68 pages would cause further damage is open to conjecture . PNG wants the three returned for questioning.

The damage to international relations exemption as interpreted by the courts sets a low  threshold for the claim and as an absolute exemption comes with no public interest test.
It a bar that should be set higher.

In the meantime we will just have to take DIBP at their word:
"Media reporting and allegations that the Department has something to hide in relation to this matter are false.'
An external review of the FOI decision may or may not clear the air.

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