Shackleton: 'End the Balibo Five cover-up'

May 11, 2007

I held such hope for the Sydney Coroner's inquest into the death of Brian Peters, one of the Balibo Five in East Timor in 1975, because we were promised an open court. But now the rules have been changed to allow vital evidence to be given "in camera", which gives Commonwealth bureaucrats the opportunity to censor that evidence.

However, the Australian ambassador to Indonesia in 1975, Richard Woolcott, has been subpoenaed to appear on May 17. He is the key to this terrible mystery. He has boasted, for almost four decades, of extensive pre-knowledge of Indonesian military plans to invade East Timor and the night before the atrocity at Balibo he discussed the details of Operation Flamboyant with Major General Benni Murdani.

"We cannot have any witnesses", said Murdani, referring to Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters who, his signals intelligence staff had informed him, were still in the area of Balibo. This conversation between Murdani and Colonel Kalbuadi Dading, Batugade commander of the covert task force set to attack Balibo the next day, was intercepted by Australian signals intelligence operators at Shoal Bay and Cabarlah and passed on to the headquarters of Australia's Defence Signals Directorate, then at Albert Park in Melbourne.

"Ever since October 1975, the very existence of this intercept has been shrouded in obsessive secrecy and even denied outright", said Professor Desmond Ball and Hamish McDonald in their 2000 book Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra.

Gordon Jockel, director of the Joint Intelligence Organisation, spoke privately to the families after giving his evidence at the coronial inquiry. He regretted that we were kept in the dark about the fate of the five journalists, saying his reaction to the news then was "one of shock and horror". He wanted us to know why we were ignored, saying: "There were two departments and they lacked communication with each other". He also wanted to inform Coroner Dorelle Pinch that, "He and the intelligence community had no doubts that the five Australians were deliberately killed".

Much was made of former ALP PM Gough Whitlam's appearance at the inquest. I do not believe his claims of warning Greg not to go to East Timor. Though our marriage was over, we remained friends and spoke daily about Greg's determination to report on East Timor. He thought if Suharto's expansionist dictatorship was to seize "the gateway to Australia" (as it was dubbed in World War II), we had better know about it. He would certainly have told me if the prime minister of Australia had warned him not to go to East Timor.

How likely is it that Whitlam would not have understood that such a warning to any journalist worth his salt would spur him on? Whitlam's claim also backfires as it confirms he had some knowledge of the impending war on Australia's closest neighbour.

Under oath, Whitlam was allowed to get away with a hypothetical: "If Greg Shackleton failed to pass on my warning to his colleagues he was irresponsible and culpable". Whitlam may think he is safe because the dead cannot speak.

Three days before they were to leave for East Timor, I had lunch with Greg, Tony and Gary. It was clear that they did not need any warning about the dangers associated with reporting an illegal war as they discussed it at length. Whitlam's name was not mentioned, as it surely would have been had there been any truth to his spurious claims. And surely if Whitlam was so worried why didn't he warn Channel Seven executives?

Whomever said that the Balibo Five were in the wrong place at the wrong time displays pig-ignorance about investigative journalists. They were just doing their job. Their mistake was to believe the pro-Jakarta propaganda peddled by Whitlam and his cronies at the time.

Greg was concerned for his own safety and that of his friends in the event that they might be arrested. "Sell the house", he said to me, adding, "Do everything to get us out". He was a bad asthmatic and feared he might die of neglect in prison.

Whitlam should keep his word. In his 1997 book, Abiding Interests, he said: "I am advised that I should not yet reveal why we did not know of the incursion across the border to Balibo and why we were immediately afterwards to learn that the five men had been killed". He mentioned the 30-year rule as being the time all the documents would be revealed. That time has passed, and the silence is deafening.

I am incandescent with rage when I remember the lies we were told by Australian government officials. The grief and harm to us all, especially the children, was intensified by those official liars. First, they told us that the journalists were missing. Then they said the dead men must be held responsible for their own deaths because they should never have gone to Balibo.

Seven weeks after the murders, Indonesia invaded East Timor and the Australian government began to publicly defend the genocidal occupation of East Timor and the cover up of the Balibo murders.

Once the Indonesian military got away with the murder of the five men at Balibo, it felt free to murder a sixth Australian journalist, Roger East, on December 8, 1975, the day after the bloody invasion. He had been brave enough to stay to report the invasion, and he was shot while under Indonesian military arrest.

Intelligence officers working at Shoal Bay and Albert Park on October 16, 1975, who received intercepts about the atrocity at Balibo, are not free to testify in an open court. Why? What do we have to fear from the truth whatever it should turn out to be?

[Shirley Shackleton was married to one of the news reporters, Greg Shackleton, who was killed at Balibo.]

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