On 16 Ocober 1975, the Balibo Five, a group of Australian television journalists based in the town of Balibo in the then Portuguese Timor (now East Timor), were killed by Indonesian troops.
The Balibo Five was a group of journalists for Australian commercial television networks who were killed in the period leading up to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor.
The Balibo Five were based in the town of Balibo in East Timor (then Portuguese Timor), where they were killed on 16 October 1975 during Indonesian incursions before the invasion.
Roger East travelled to Balibo soon after to investigate the likely deaths of the Five and was later executed by members of the Indonesian military on the docks of Dili.
In 2007, an Australian coroner ruled that they had been deliberately killed by Indonesian special forces soldiers. The official Indonesian version is that the men were killed by cross-fire during the battle for the town.
According to The Economist, the Australian Government has never challenged this view in order to avoid damaging relations with Indonesia.
After the ruling, newly elected Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd declared “those responsible should be held to account… You can’t just sweep this to one side”. However, no meaningful action was taken after he was elected, and Rudd refused to visit the gravesite of the slain journalists in 2008.
The group comprised two Australians, reporter Greg Shackleton, 29, and sound recordist Tony Stewart, 21; a New Zealander, Gary Cunningham, 27, cameraman for HSV-7 (now part of the Seven Network) in Melbourne; and two Britons, cameraman Brian Peters, 24, and reporter Malcolm Rennie, 29, both working for TCN-9 (now part of the Nine Network) in Sydney.
While the men were aware that Indonesian troops were to mount an attack on the town of Balibo, they believed that, as journalists, they would not be considered military targets. Greg Shackleton was filmed painting an Australian flag and the word ‘AUSTRALIA’ on the wall of a house in the town square.
Balibo House Trust, established in 2003 with seed funding from the Victorian Government and television stations 7 and 9, now owns this house and preserves it as a community learning centre.
Senior diplomats told the 2007 coroner’s inquest of their understanding that “the killing was done by the Indonesian military and that it was deliberate”.
According to historian Clinton Fernandes:
“The five journalists… clearly identified themselves as Australians and as journalists. They were unarmed and dressed in civilian clothes. They had their hands raised in the universally recognised gesture of surrender. They were killed deliberately on orders that emanated from the highest levels. Their corpses were dressed in uniforms, guns placed beside them, and photographs taken in an attempt to portray them as legitimate targets”.
Roger East, 53, an Australian AAP-Reuters journalist, travelled to East Timor to investigate the deaths of the five men. East was captured in Dili by the Indonesian military on 7 December 1975, the day of the invasion, and executed by firing squad on the morning of 8 December with his body being disposed of in the ocean.
He has been referred to as the forgotten sixth member of the Balibo Five. Calls for an inquest into East’s death have been rejected.
A 1999 government enquiry into the deaths of the Balibo Five and Roger East, conducted by the former chairman of the National Crime Authority and Australian Government Solicitor Tom Sherman, found no evidence of murder but accused Indonesia of burning their bodies in a “charade” to destroy all evidence of a “monumental blunder” following their deaths in crossfire. However, in contrast to the Balibo incident, the killing of Roger East:
“took place in an urban area with a number of uninvolved persons in close proximity. The quality of the evidence on Roger East’s death was much higher. The evidence came from two eyewitnesses, supported by strong circumstantial evidence of the killing from two further witnesses. In relation to Roger East, I have concluded that it is more likely than not he was summarily executed by an unidentified Indonesian soldier late on the morning of December 8, 1975, in the wharf area of Dili”.
War crimes investigation
On 9 September 2009, it was announced that the Australian Federal Police were launching a war crimes probe into the deaths of the Balibo Five.
In 2009, former Indonesian soldier Gatot Purwanto told the ABC the men were shot deliberately but not executed. He says he was about 30 metres away when Indonesian soldiers fired on the house in which the men were sheltering. “We knew they were foreigners, but we didn’t think about whether they were journalists or not, because in a battle, the instinct is if they’re not friends, then they could kill us”, he said.
He said he was with Special Forces captain Yunus Yosfiah when the Balibo Five were spotted. A coronial inquest into the deaths of the men found Yosfiah, who was later an Indonesian Government minister, ordered the killings.
Professor Ben Saul, who acted for the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) at the NSW inquiry, said there are “complexities” in the legal situation relating to prosecuting a war crime. “It has to show that there was an international armed conflict between Indonesia and Portugal … and that in the context of that the journalist were killed”, he said, adding “I think the legal case for that conflict’s existence is very strong on the facts”.
He said that while the criminal standard of proof was much higher for the police than in a coronial inquest, the AFP have not “satisfactorily” explained whether they had exhausted all lines of inquiry.
The AFP then concluded, in 2014, that there was insufficient evidence to prove an offence.