In 1975, five Australian based members of a news crew went missing during the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. The group consisted of two Australians, two Britons and a New Zealander. This film focuses on a sixth Australian journalist, Roger East, who went to the highly dangerous area to find out what happened to them.
Balibo is the name of the tiny coastal town in what used to be Portuguese Timor, where the five men were, according to eye-witnesses, shot and stabbed to death by invading Indonesian troops acting on orders from above. The apparent motive for the murders was to prevent the crew from broadcasting details of the Indonesian invasion to the world. Despite undeniable evidence that the men were summarily executed, both the Australian and Indonesian governments have continued to claim that the deaths were accidental, that the crew was unluckily caught in crossfire during the battle for Balibo. The failure of successive Australian governments to investigate the killings for over 30 years is both typical and inexcusable.
In 2007, the British widow of Brian Peters, one of the victims, finally succeeded in obtaining a coroner’s inquest into her husband’s murder. This was the first official inquiry into the deaths of the ‘Balibo Five’, as the journalists have since been named, in which eye witnesses could be called. The coroner found that the men were, ‘…shot or stabbed deliberately, not in the heat of battle’, and for the reasons stated above. In September 2009 the Australian Federal Police announced they would be investigating the matter as a war crime. Sceptics rightfully ask why it had taken 32 years to initiate this. Nothing came of the ‘investigation’ anyway.
As for Roger East, the main character in this film, he was butchered by Indonesian troops on the Dili dockside less than two months after the ‘Balibo Five’ murders. In 1999 the Australian Government held an inquiry of sorts into all six deaths, but reached the ‘anticipated’ conclusion that there was no evidence of murder having taken place, preferring instead to call the tragedy a ‘monumental blunder’ by Indonesian troops. Again, the ‘crossfire, death by accident’ rubbish was trotted out. Numerous eye witnesses saw Mr East shot to death on the wharf, yet nobody has been brought to account for his murder either. According to the family of British victim Tony Stewart, the only contact his mother ever had with the Australian Government came when an official called to ask her who would be paying for the cost of her husband’s coffin! The British government showed even less interest or concern.
Australian authorities had known who killed all six non-combatants from the beginning, but our complicity in the invasion was something our government preferred to keep silent about. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, (a flawed and greatly over-rated leader if there ever was one), had twice met President Suharto of Indonesia in 1974, and advised him that Australia would not oppose an Indonesian takeover of East Timor. Consequently, on October 13, Australian embassy officials in Jakarta were secretly told of the impending invasion set for October 16.
Both Britain and New Zealand were more than happy to have their murdered citizens described as ‘Australians’ and, therefore, not a matter for their concern. It seems that spineless, immoral politicians are not limited to Australia alone. Australia’s Defense Signals Directorate (DSD) had been monitoring the Indonesian Army’s radio traffic during the invasion, and was thus completely aware of the deaths (and subsequent burning of the bodies) of the ‘Balibo Five’ on October 16. The PM and others were immediately informed. They did and said nothing.
Ultimately, Indonesia went public and announced that the men were ‘missing’. On October 21, Australia’s Foreign Minister Don Willesee, himself the father of three distinguished journalists, advised the Senate that there were grave concerns about the ‘missing’ men. We know now that he knew all along they were dead. So did Whitlam. By the time Indonesia handed over a single wooden box containing charred bone fragments, camera gear and notebooks to Australian officials on November 12, bigger events were occupying the media’s focus. On 11 November, Whitlam and his party were removed from office by Governor-General John Kerr, and Malcolm Fraser and the Liberals slid into power (so much for democracy in Australia). Despite desperate attempts by relatives of the murdered men (and some of the media), not one subsequent Australian Government (from either party) has made any genuine attempt to bring them justice.
In 1995, following 20 years of continued public pressure, Foreign Minister Gareth Evans initiated a report on the killings to be led by QC Tom Sherman. By the time his preliminary report was ready, however, John Howard’s Liberal government was back in power and showing no interest in pursuing the issue further. As more evidence trickled in and pressure mounted yet again, Howard finally called for a second report. Suharto was by now removed from power in Indonesia, however, so there was no-one officially to blame anymore.
It has since emerged (in 2014) that former PM Whitlam knew precisely what had taken place, but always maintained (in public anyway) that the journalists were killed in a crossfire between Indonesian and East Timorese Fretilin forces. His entire handling of the atrocity had been appalling and reeked of complicity. Then again, he was pretty busy wallowing in self-pity and making lame speeches about the Governor-General at the time. Malcolm Fraser had bigger fish to fry when he was handed the nation’s top job on a plate, so he put the issue in the ‘too hard’ basket as well.
Today (March 2015), we are witnessing the final, ultimate insult to the ‘Balibo Five’ and Mr. East. Urged on by the ever-vocal bleeding hearts lobby, our government moves heaven and Earth on a daily basis to get the current Indonesian president to spare the lives of two dope dealers who had the greed and stupidity to flog their merchandise under the very noses of a regime that had openly stated how it would treat drug-traffickers if it caught them. Even so, the Australian Government, for all the world to see, daily demonstrates that it will go to almost superhuman lengths to save these criminals from punishment. Relations between Australia and Indonesia are being strained to breaking point over these two individuals. Where was this kind of resolve in 1975?
When is the western world going to stop pussy-footing about with drug-traffickers? When are we going to ditch this ‘all life is precious’ mentality, and dish out penalties that fit the crime? All life is not precious. The lives of those who make money out of the misery of others, who actively contribute to the massive escalation of crime wherever their grubby footprints take them, are not precious.
The new Indonesian president was elected partly because he promised to be tough on drug-dealers if they were caught in his country. Now, all of a sudden, our current PM seems to think it is appropriate to tell the leader of another nation how he should handle his own country’s drug problem. If only the long-dead journalists had received a modicum of such support and outrage forty years ago; their families might now be able to say that their government did all that was humanly possible to set the record straight.