On 16 October 1975, five journalists from Australian television networks who had been sent to cover Indonesian incursions into East Timor were murdered and their bodies burnt by Indonesian Special Forces in the village of Balibo. Two were Australian: Gregory Shackleton, whose final report included footage of the painting of an Australian flag and the word ‘AUSTRALIA’ on the house in which they sheltered, ‘hoping it will afford us some protection’, and cameraman Anthony Stewart. With them was New Zealander Gary Cunningham. All worked for HSV7. Two British journalists, cameraman Brian Peters and reporter Malcolm Rennie, working for TCN9 Sydney, were with the Melbourne-based journalists.
Indonesian forces’ public execution of Australian Roger East in Dili on 8 December 1975 led to his inclusion as the silent sixth member of the ‘Balibo Five’. East worked for AAP-Reuters, and hoped to discover more about the deaths. Australian intelligence agencies and Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, endeavouring to hide Australian surveillance of Indonesia, suppressed their immediate knowledge of the Balibo deaths.
Several inquiries by Australian and international authorities have failed to change the Indonesian position that the five men were killed in crossfire, despite credible evidence to the contrary. Then and now, Australia regarded its covert operations and its relationship with Indonesia as more important than bringing those responsible to account. A film, a play and active social media sites continue to fuel public focus on the murders. The Balibo Five tragedy represents more than the death of five journalists. It continues to be a focus for public and media in the reporting of Timor-Leste, and clouds developments in Australian–Indonesian relations.
REFs: D. Ball and H. McDonald, Death in Balibo (1992); J. Jolliffe, Balibo (2009).