Remembering the Balibo Five In the month of August, Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA was proud to support the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) co-host two public events featuring East Timorese Journalist, Raimundos Oki who was in Australia undertaking a placement with Fairfax and the ABC. The strong relationship between Journalists in Timor Leste and MEAA is a very personal one for many MEAA members, dating back to the tragic history of five young Australian Journalists who were murdered in a town called Balibo, Timor Leste.
As we approach the 42nd anniversary of the deaths of Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham and Greg Shackleton (the Balibo Five) on October 16, 1975, APHEDA would like to pay tribute to these five Australian Journalists and their colleague Roger East who was also murdered in Timor Leste's capital city of Dili on December 8th of that same fated year.
Many APHEDA members are familiar with the story of the Balibo 5, whose murders preceded the brutal occupation of Timor Leste by Indonesian forces by a matter of months and whose journalistic pursuit of information about the suspected covert activities of the Indonesian army took them to the tiny town of Balibo, half an hour from the Indonesian border. Today, with the support of the Victorian Government, trade unions, construction companies and the Balibo House Trust (set up by family members of the victims) you can visit the town of Balibo and stay in the renovated fort which has been converted into a comfortable modern hotel overlooking the district with a clear view at night of the lights on the border. The money raised in the trust also supports local employment in the hotel, a primary school and recently a dental clinic for the people of the Balibo district.
Down the bottom of the hill from the fort, travellers can also visit the Balibo Flag House Museum where the red-painted Australian flag, a last-ditch effort to alert the invaders the Australians were there, is now preserved along with a moving exhibition in honour of the journalists and other local people who valiantly fought off the invasion and murder of thousands of Timorese people during the 25-year Indonesian occupation of Australia's nearest island neighbour.
However, family members of the Balibo Five are still fighting for justice. Initially, no information about what happened to the slain men was made available to their families and colleagues. Once their deaths were confirmed, however, it was suggested the five had been caught in cross-fire between the invading Indonesian army and local Timorese. Eventually following a coronial inquest in 2007, NSW Deputy Coroner Dorelle Pinch brought down a finding into the death of Peters:
"Pinch found that Peters, in company with the other slain journalists, had died at Balibo in Timor Leste on 16 October, 1975 from wounds sustained when he was shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by members of the Indonesian Special Forces, including Christoforus da Silva and Captain Yunus Yosfiah on the orders of Captain Yosfiah, to prevent him from revealing that Indonesian Special Forces had participated in the attack on Balibo."
The Chilling Effect – MEAA's Press Freedom Report 2017
A war crimes investigation into the deaths of the five journalists was not instigated until two years later in 2009 and the secrecy around its content and results were never made public. Pressure from family members, friends and politicians such as Senator Nick Xenophon led to extremely limited information being publicly released on October 13, 2014, about the 'ongoing' nature of the investigation without any concrete detail or findings shared. Almost immediately afterwards on October 21, 2014, the Australian Federal Police announced it was abandoning its investigation due to "insufficient evidence to prove an offence".
The Balibo Five – Roger East Fellowship
In memory of the six who never returned from Timor Leste, MEAA established an annual scholarship through APHEDA to support keen investigative journalists from Timor Leste to undertake international study and work placements in pursuit of ongoing media. The second round of scholarship applications closed last month and the 2017 recipients of the Balibo Five – Roger East Fellowship will be announced in October.
The solidarity between comrades was palpable in Melbourne and Sydney last month when Brother Oki (who last year was charged with treason for an article he wrote criticising the Timorese Prime Minister) explained his desire to become a journalist had been inspired by hearing the story of the five young Australians who were martyred in their attempts to share the story of the Timorese people with the outside world.