On Balibo

We can’t forget the lessons of Balibo
Nick Xenophon and Clinton Fernandes
5 Balibo
Six journalists were killed and it shouldn’t have been swept under the carpet.

Forty years ago on Friday, five young men met their deaths in a small corner of a foreign field. Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton, and Anthony Stewart were journalists employed by Channels 7 and 9. They were murdered in cold blood by the Indonesian military on the morning of October 16, 1975, at Balibo, in what was then Portuguese Timor and is today East Timor.

** FILE ** A file copy photograph taken Nov. 16, 2007 of Greg Shackleton posted on a wall outside the New South Wales Coroners Court, Sydney. According to Fairfax newspapers,  Gatot Purwanto, a former Kopassus special forces officer and intelligence commander in East Timor, said the five Australian-based journalists killed during the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 were executed and burned to conceal the invasion, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2009. (AAP Image/Supplied, File) NO ARCHIVING

** FILE ** A file copy photograph taken Nov. 16, 2007 of Greg Shackleton posted on a wall outside the New South Wales Coroners Court, Sydney. According to Fairfax newspapers, Gatot Purwanto, a former Kopassus special forces officer and intelligence commander in East Timor, said the five Australian-based journalists killed during the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 were executed and burned to conceal the invasion, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2009. (AAP Image/Supplied, File) NO ARCHIVING

Why do their deaths matter now? The answer is that their fate holds poignant and instructive lessons for us today. At the time, the Indonesian military was conducting a covert military campaign in the border regions of East Timor. It publicly denied that it was involved in those operations, but privately gave details of the campaign to Australian diplomats. The strategy depended on the Indonesian military’s involvement remaining hidden. If the journalists, who were in the border town of Balibo, had obtained film footage of the operations and conveyed it to the outside world, the covert military operation would have been exposed. Indonesian troops seized Balibo and killed the journalists soon after. They executed another Australian journalist, Roger East, six weeks later.
Australian diplomats, now thoroughly compromised by the secret briefings, went along with the charade. They protected the Indonesian military from the consequences of its actions. They said their “immediate diplomatic problem and task” was “to do what we can to reduce the pressure on the Indonesians”. Successive governments acted to shield the Indonesian military from criticism in Australia. Under prime minister Malcolm Fraser, Australia became the only Western country to give legal recognition to the Indonesian annexation. After a particularly shocking massacre in late 1991, then foreign minister Gareth Evans ordered the removal of more than 100 wooden crosses – placed as a sign of mourning – from the lawn in front of the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra. The Keating government ensured that Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas received the award of the Order of Australia in 1995. Not to be outdone, Tim Fischer, deputy prime minister in the Howard government, said that Indonesian president Suharto was “perhaps the world’s greatest figure in the latter half of the 20th century”.

Greg Shackleton paints “Australia” on a shop wall in Balibo in East Timor in 1975. He and five other journalists were killed while covering Indonesia’s invasion.

Declassified Australian intelligence records show that the Indonesian high command was very alarmed about the international diplomatic consequences of killing the Balibo Five, and called a halt to its military operations for five weeks. But there was no protest from Australia. The Indonesian military took this as a “green light”; they realised they could treat the East Timorese as they wished. And that is what they did. The consequences for the East Timorese people were horrific. They died in large numbers, often in appalling ways.

University of California, Berkeley, demographer Sarah Staveteig estimates that 204,000 East Timorese died during the Indonesian occupation. With a pre-invasion population of 648,000, that’s nearly one in three.

The great irony today is that, 40 years on, Indonesia has made a stunning transition to a robust democracy with a free press, while East Timor has recently passed laws muzzling journalists.

We remember the Balibo Five today not because journalists are any more special than other civilians, but because journalists play a crucial role in bringing information about human rights violations to the outside world. As the Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

Nick Xenophon is an independent Senator for South Australia. Clinton Fernandes is an academic at University of NSW.


A dawn service is held in their memory on Friday at the War Correspondents Memorial, in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial.Dawn Service for the Balibo 5 and Roger East

40 years ago this Friday, 16 October, five Australian journalists were murdered while reporting from the town of Balibo in East Timor. A sixth Australian journalist, Roger East, was killed two months later during the Indonesian invasion.

A short service will be held at dawn at the War Correspondents’ Memorial of the Australian War Memorial. The dedication will include a minute’s silence and the laying of wreaths.

Journalists and the public are invited to attend. Discrete camera positions will be available. Interviews will be available after the ceremony.
Who: Shirley Shackleton, wife of Greg Shackleton; John Milkins, son of Garry Cunningham; Paul Stewart, brother of Tony Stewart; Warwick Costin, CEW Bean Foundation; Representatives from the Timor Leste Embassy; The Hon. Nick Xenophon, Independent Senator for South Australia; Mark Riley, Seven Network; Quentin Dempster, Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA);
What: Commemorative Wreathlaying Ceremony
Where: War Correspondents Memorial, Australian War Memorial (see map) Treloar Cres, Campbell ACT 2612, Australia, https://www.awm.gov.au/visit/ ]
When: 6 am for 6.15 am start, Friday 16 October 2015 CONTACT DETAILS: Mark Davis 0419 696 742 markdavistv@gmail.com

Balibo 5 http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2015/10/15/balibo-five-40-years

First ever dawn service for journos marks 40th anniversary of Balibo murders October 15, 2015 9:00am
Ian McPhedran and AAP national defence writer
EXACTLY 40 years ago today five Australian journalists were stabbed and shot in cold blood by Indonesian Special Forces troops in and around a small concrete hut in the town of Balibo in East Timor.


The Information Officer of the Australia East Timor Association SA, Andrew Alcock, issued the following statement today:

“Friday, 16 October 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of a dreadful crime against humanity – the deaths of the “Balibo 5”, five Australian-based news workers.

They were:
* Greg Shackleton
* Tony Stewart
* Gary Cunningham
* Malcolm Rennie
* Brian Peters

These men were murdered by the Indonesian military (TNI) as they bravely reported on the illegal incursion it was making into East Timor just weeks before before Indonesia began its full scale invasion of 7 December 1975.

And on the 8 December, Roger East, another Australian journalist, who initially went to Timor to investigate what had happened to the Balibo 5 and who decided to stay and report on the invasion, was also murdered by invading Indonesian soldiers.

Indonesian leaders have always maintained that the Balibo 5 were killed in crossfire. And during many years of the occupation.

In 2007, a NSW Coroner’s Inquest into the death of Brian Peters found that the journalists were murdered by Indonesian forces in what the court considered constituted a war crime.

On 9 September 2009, it was announced that the Australian Federal Police were launching a war crimes probe into the deaths of the Balibo 5.

Even though, the 2007 Inquiry was able to name Special Forces Captain Yunus Yosfiah as the TNI officer who ordered the murders of the men, the AFP concluded in 2014, that there was insufficient evidence to prove an offence had been committed. Many believe that there was political pressure put on the AFP to halt its investigation.

Yunus Yosfiah later became an Indonesian government minister.

Australians who believe in justice consider that a great wrong was done to the Balibo 5 and Roger East and that Australian Governments, instead of showing outrage at the crimes committed by the TNI, connived with the Indonesian dictatorship of General Suharto and the Indonesian administrations that have followed since to cover up what happened.

While what happened to the Australians was a blatant crime, AETFA SA believes that what happened to the people of East Timor was a far greater one. The 24 year illegal occupation of their country by Indonesia led to the wiping out of almost a third of the civilian population.

Shamefully for Australians, the record shows that Australia continued to aid and train the TNI throughout this time.

Australia partly absolved itself when the Australian military played a very important part in the UN INTERFET force that entered East Timor after the mass violence committed by the TNI and its militias following the 1999 independence referendum. However, Australian leaders could have played a much more decisive role to prevent the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor. After all, the East Timorese proved to be very loyal allies to Australia during World War 2 and suffered greatly for being so.

This 40th anniversary occurs at a time when TNI coup which was aided by the CIA and which saw at least a million Indonesians butchered. Since then, apart from the invasion of East Timor, the TNI has also been involved in genocide and crimes against humanity in West Papua, Acheh and parts of Indonesia itself.

None of the TNI officers involved in these crimes have ever been brought to justice even though they are considered to be as serious as those committed by the Nazis.

To many, the TNI has become the largest force for terrorism in our region.

As we commemorate, the deaths of the Balibo 5, Roger East, numerous West Papuans, East Timorese, Achehnese and Indonesians at the hands of the Indonesian military, many Australians are wondering why our governments still aid the Indonesian military and why western governments have not taken action to the alleged war criminals in its ranks before an international tribunal to face justice. If Indonesia was truly democratic and supportive of human rights, it would have already taken action against these criminals.”


* Greg Shackleton
* Tony Stewart
* Gary Cunningham
* Malcolm Rennie
* Brian Peters

and many West Papuan, East Timorese, Achehnese and Indonesian victims
Andrew (Andy) Alcock Information Officer

How we can honour the ‘Balibo Five’ 40 years on
By Damien Kingsbury
The murder of these journalists, and the continuing refusal to acknowledge what happened, much less agree to legal redress, has remained as a marker of distrust between Australia and Indonesia. It also presaged the wholesale deaths of Timorese, through shooting, bombing and starvation, not ending until the Australian-led Interfet intervention of 1999.

There is, and can be, no precise figure on how many people died as a direct consequence of Indonesia’s invasion. But official and somewhat conservative estimates put the death toll at between 130,000 and 180,000 people, or about a quarter of what was then Timor-Leste’s population. The Balibo Five and Roger East have become as one with the other dead of Timor-Leste.

To remember these journalists, in 1982, Australian media organisations established the Australian News Correspondents Memorial Award, to send a young journalist to study at the Columbia University Journalism School. The first award, in honour of the journalists murdered in Timor-Leste, was to Geraldine Brooks, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and become a successful novelist. I won the second award, in honour of Tony Joyce, a leading ABC correspondent who was shot at the border of Zambia in late 1979, dying two months later.

The award and its associated scholarship was expensive and, in 1984, the media organisations withdrew their support. Residual funds were held in trust by the then Australian Journalists Association, now the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA).

To continue to commemorate the Balibo Five and Roger East, the MEAA has now relaunched the award, to be made to East Timorese journalists for training in Australia. This is a fitting tribute to the continued interconnectedness of Australia and Timor-Leste, and is supported by the families of the Balibo Five.

The Balibo Five and Roger East are also remembered through the establishment, by the Victorian Government, of the Balibo House Trust, which has refurbished the “Flag House” as a community learning centre, supports the Balibo kindergarten, has built heritage-sensitive visitor accommodation in the old Portuguese fort, and is now raising funds to establish a dental clinic for the Balibo and regional community.

Forty years ago, the Balibo Five and Roger East could not have envisaged they would come to symbolise a key part of Australia’s sense of connectedness to Timor-Leste. It is fitting, however, that their story continues to resonate and, by so doing, continues to remind us of the larger story they were sent to report on.

Damien Kingsbury is Professor of International Politics at Deakin University. He is vice-president/deputy chair of the board of the Balibo House Trust.

Balibo Five: Relative of one of the victims calls for AFP to reopen war crimes investigation


Balibo the film



3 Responses to On Balibo

  1. ian curr October 17, 2015 at 9:41 am #

    The article claims: “Australia partly absolved itself when the Australian military played a very important part in the UN INTERFET force that entered East Timor after the mass violence committed by the TNI and its militias following the 1999 independence referendum.

    After a clear majority (78.5%) voted in favour of independence on 30 August 1999, the Indonesian military, Kopassus, gave the OK to its paramilitary who killed East Timorese randomly in the streets of the capital, Dili, and elsewhere.

    To the dismay of many, the UN mission was evacuated leaving East Timorese at the mercy of murderous Indonesian military. On arrival at Darwin airport, a UN volunteer roundly criticised the failure of the UN to stop the genocide and swore he would never again serve with a UN mission for deserting their friends in Dili.

    What meddlesome priest can absolve the murder of the five with the murder of thousands?

  2. chriswhite October 19, 2015 at 2:53 pm #

    Response I prepared to Ian Curr’s comment about my media statement. I hope it contributes to the ongoing discussion about this black part of Australia’s, Indonesia’s and Timor’s history. Andy Alcock
    Hi Ian

    Thank you for your feedback. We are not in disagreement.

    After the prominence of Australia in the UN INTERFET peacekeeping force that entered East Timor in 1999. Jose Ramos-Horta made a statement that this contribution had more or less made up for all the previous betrayals of Australia’s political leaders during the illegal and incredibly brutal occupation.

    I personally don’t think that the betrayal of the East Timorese can be absolved at all, but some Timorese believe that to be the case as a result of Australia’s role in INTERFET.

    The absolute death, destruction and chaos that followed the last orgy of brutality by the TNI and its militias following the announcement of the 1999 independence referendum can be laid at the feet of Alexander Downer and John Howard.

    They were pushing the line that it was only a few “bad apples” in the TNI barrel that were responsible for the mass murders and the gross human rights abuses. Therefore, they argued in the UN that it was only necessary to have a UN civilian police force (CIVPOL) present for security during the referendum. They must have been ignoring all the information that was coming from Australian intelligence agencies that were closely monitoring the behaviour of the INI throughout the illegal occupation of East Timor.

    The “Liberal” party leaders were not the only ones supporting this foolish notion. After the Santa Cruz Massacre of 12 November 1999 at Dili’s Santa Cruz Cemetry during which over 270 civilians were murdered in cold blood by the TNI, the former right wing ALP foreign affairs minister, Gareth Evans described the event as an “aberration”!!

    [It is obvious to anyone who has followed the history that Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor constituted a whole series of massacres and gross human rights abuses. I believe that many of these people did not really believe the propaganda that they were promoting. It has more to do with Australian subservience to the policies of the US Military Industrial Complex. Indonesia has been a client state ever since the CIA greatly assisted the TNI overthrow of Indonesian democracy in 1965 and the US and its allies have been very quiet about the genocide and human rights abuses perpetrated against the peoples of West Papua, Acheh, East Timor and some in key parts of Indonesia (eg Malaku).]

    Certainly, solidarity groups lobbied Australian politicians to have a UN peacekeeping force in Timor before the referendum was conducted.

    As a result of this stupid and irresponsible decision, probably up to another 2000 civilians needlessly lost their lives at the hands of the TNI and its militias according to James Dunn, the former Australian consul to East Timor and author of 2 books on the Indonesian occupation who was involved in a UN human rights team that reported on what led to INTERFET being initiated.

    Now we have the situation where Australian leaders are in the process of ripping off oil and gas from deposits in Timor-Leste’s 1/2 of the Timor Sea.

    How these people can live with themselves is beyond me. Australia, the wealthiest nation in SE Asia is ripping off Timor-Leste, the poorest in the region and one of the poorest in the world.

    I think it that it takes a certain amount of callousness, immorality, lack of compassion and inhumanity to adopt such a position.

    Apart from its high profile involvement in the UN INTERFET peacekeeping force in 1999, Australia’s treatment of the East Timorese during and since WW2 has been consistently disgusting and disgraceful.

    Andy Alcock

  3. ian curr October 20, 2015 at 8:06 am #

    Thanks Andy for your comments, I appreciate them.

    Chris, is it possible for you to remove the gobblygook labelled ‘The graffiti on Parliament House. Photo: Kylie Pickett’ posted by me above. I was trying to post an image of graffiti painted on the new federal parliament after the shameful actions of that house during ‘the last orgy of brutality by the TNI and its militias following the announcement of the 1999 independence referendum’. Here is the image:


    The author of that graffiti ‘was convicted in 2000 of damaging Commonwealth property after he spray-painted, “Shame Australia!! Shame!” in hot pink across the front of Parliament House, Canberra, as part of a protest about East Timor.’

    Meanwhile the accomplices of the East Timorese genocide inside the parliament got off scot-free.

    Ian Curr