Government hides report on Biak killings

March 17, 1999

Government hides report on Biak killings

By Linda Kaucher

The Australian Defence Department has refused a freedom of information request concerning West Papua put to the Department of Foreign Affairs.

When Indonesian armed forces reacted violently towards flag-raising demonstrations throughout West Papua last July, the crackdown was particularly violent on Biak island. However, press restrictions and the difficulties of collating information under such oppressive circumstances resulted in little reporting of what had happened.

In November, two Australians who had been on Biak finally spoke to the Sydney Morning Herald. News of the killings hit the headlines, and questions were asked in parliament about what Foreign Affairs was aware of.

Senator Robert Hill responded in the Senate on behalf of foreign minister Alexander Downer, saying that a defence attaché had gone to Biak straight after the events and that the government had had the attaché's report since July 11.

When asked to release the report, the Department of Foreign Affairs refused, saying that it might endanger the informants. Senator Hill played down what had happened on Biak, casting doubt on the reliability of reports and emphasising that information from different sources varied. The official Indonesian figure of one West Papuan death did indeed differ from reports from other sources.

Since then, both 7.30 Report and Foreign Correspondent have broadcast eyewitness reports of the atrocities.

Now, in response to a formal FOI request, the Defence Department has claimed that the attaché's report is exempt from FOI because "disclosure could be expected to cause damage to international relations" and "would divulge information communicated in confidence by or on behalf of a foreign government".

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