Nauru’s Justice Minister is suing the ABC for defamation over a Lateline story about the death of his wife and the alleged lack of a substantial investigation into her death.

The February 23 report examined the circumstances surrounding the death of David Adeang’s wife, Madelyn Adeang, and the subsequent investigation. She was found burnt to death in the garden of her home in April 2013. It’s claimed Madelyn Adeang was carrying a bucket of petrol that accidentally caught fire.

The Lateline report alleged her death was not properly investigated. Last year, the ABC’s 7.30 program also referenced the death and the lack of an investigation.

The Nauru government issued two statements about the broadcast, stating David Adeang was “offended and speechless” at the “insensitive questioning” in the program and that it represented “a new low” in Australian journalism. David Adeang accused the ABC of being used by or conspiring with the Nauru opposition party “to destabilise the government of Nauru”:

“It is unprecedented for an Australian media organisation to interfere in the domestic politics of another country.”

David Adeang made threats of a defamation suit but didn’t proceed until Lateline‘s story. The case was launched in the Federal Court in April.

According to the statement of claim, filed in June, David Adeang alleges the program claims he obstructed justice over the investigation of his wife’s death, had the commissioner of police removed, had the resident magistrate deported to prevent a proper investigation, and cancelled the visa of the chief justice to prevent an investigation from going ahead.

[Nauru to Australian media: pipe down]

David Adeang alleges the ABC knew the claims were false, failed to inform him of the allegations and the intent to broadcast before they went to air and reported the matter in an “over-sensationalised manner”.

The Justice Minister attempted to settle with the ABC in April but didn’t get a satisfactory response. The ABC has not removed the video and accompanying online story.

David Adeang said the questions the ABC put to him just before the broadcast (he earlier alleged the reporter did not put questions to him) were “expressed in callous and harmful terms”.

Lateline shows the reporter, Ginny Stein, attempting to contact the Justice Minister, and also notes the difficulty for journalists travelling to Nauru given Nauru in January 2014 increased the cost of journalist visas from $200 to $8000. The only journalists allowed access to Nauru since the price increase have been The Australian‘s Chris Kenny and a reporter and camera crew from Channel Nine’s A Current Affair.

The ABC in its defence argues the imputations made in the report that David Adeang “systematically violates the principles of democracy and the rule of law in Nauru to further his own agenda and obstructed the administration of justice” are “contextually true”. The legal team gives as proof lengthy details of the massive legal changes that occurred after the Waqa government was elected in June 2013 and the actions of the Nauru government thereafter.

[‘Total whitewash’: experts respond to ACA’s Nauru investigation]

Between April and July 2013, then-chief magistrate and coroner on Nauru, Peter Law, received a brief of evidence from Nauru police on Madelyn Adeang’s death. The brief only had a statement from the officer in charge of the investigation; they reported her death was accidental and the minister had refused to give a statement to police.

The ABC alleges that in July Law wrote to the commissioner of police, David Britten, stating David Adeang would likely need to attend an inquest into Madelyn Adeang’s death if he refused to give a statement.

Britten was suspended as police commissioner by David Adeang on July 19, 2013 and not given reasons as to his suspension, the ABC states, but notes that in addition to Madelyn Adeang’s death, Britten was also investigating allegations of illegal vote rigging by members of the Waqa government. While in opposition, the ABC states, David Adeang had received “large sums of money” from Gold Coast-based company Getax in return for the sale of phosphate to Getax after the election.

The ABC then goes into detail about laws passed to give David Adeang more powers over immigration laws on Nauru, the deportation of Law from Nauru and the cancellation of the chief justice’s visa.

In a directions hearing for the case on Friday, counsel for the ABC sought additional security from David Adeang in the event the broadcaster wins and the Justice Minister needs to pay costs. Given David Adeang is not based in Australia, the court needs to hold the money in advance. The $25,000 secured to date has already been exhausted.

Peter Fray

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