Censorship with a gun

November 5, 1997

Foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer has repeated his position that there will be no further inquiry into the killing of six journalists in East Timor in 1975. "We can't keep having inquiry after inquiry after inquiry into this incident, which very tragically occurred some 22 years ago", he told the Canberra Times on October 25. Below East Timor solidarity activist BILL FISHER reports on the call by the International Commission of Jurists for a full judicial inquiry.

William Orme, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (US), describes the murder of a journalist as "the most brutal and final form of censorship".

On October 18, the Australian section of the International Commission of Jurists convened a meeting to discuss its continuing investigation into the deaths of six journalists in East Timor in 1975. It was attended by relatives, journalists, activists, lawyers and witnesses who were not consulted by Tom Sherman, who, last year, prepared a report on the deaths of the journalists.

All present said Sherman's report was too narrow; it was meant to be only a preliminary report. Despite it being an investigation into murder, Sherman didn't even visit the scene of the crime.

Sherman was told by the then foreign minister, Gareth Evans, to question all witnesses in the Timorese community, here and in Portugal. But Evans ensured that half of the witnesses wouldn't cooperate by abusing their trusted adviser.

The ICJ wants a full judicial inquiry, with powers to receive documents now being withheld by the government, and to compel witnesses to testify and offer them protection. Bob Brown is about to move the same demand in the Senate.

The voice of Malcolm Rennie, one of the Balibo five, dramatised the Sherman report's lack of credibility. Rennie's mother, Mina, who travelled from the UK to speak to the ICJ, had recorded the soundtrack of his TV report from East Timor for Channel 9 on October 14, 1975. She said she was proud of her son reporting on national TV from a dangerous battle zone. It includes Rennie's interview with Jose Ramos Horta in Dili.

Sherman reported that no film was ever sent from East Timor by Rennie and Brian Peters, another of the journalists killed. She didn't know why, until recently, she had been lied to by the Australian and British governments to conceal the shameful secret of her son's death.

Evidence was given that Balibo was attacked on October 16 simply to kill the journalists there. Sherman's conclusion that the journalists died in cross-fire collapses.

There is much more evidence, including Greg Shackleton's news report that Fretilin had decided not to defend Balibo. Rennie and the other four journalists (Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham and Brian Peters) were killed to conceal the Indonesian invasion of East Timor — censorship with a bullet!

Jim Dunn, former Australian consul to East Timor, said that what was more deplorable was the ultimate invasion and genocide, which could have been prevented had the Australian, British and New Zealand governments "acted responsibly".

Continuing debate about Balibo has revealed threats to the lives of a number of journalists: Ric Collins (AAP) in Dili in 1975; Richard Carleton (Channel 9) at Balibo in 1977; and Hamish McDonald (Sydney Morning Herald) at Batugade, near Balibo, in 1975.

The summary execution of Australian journalist Roger East in Dili on December 8, 1975, was a direct result of the Australian government sweeping Balibo under the carpet.

Hamish McDonald told the ICJ that the chain of command at Balibo is known, and that there is nothing to lose in pursuing individual responsibility on the Indonesian side. (The commanding officer at Balibo, Captain Yunus Yosfiah — now a lieutenant-general — came to Australia for the Kangaroo military exercise in 1995.)

Two journalists from the United States, Alan Nairn and Amy Goodman, were almost killed outside the gates of Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, during the massacre there on November 12, 1991. Indonesian soldiers beat them to the ground with rifle butts shouting "politics" and "Australian". Nairn received a fractured skull.

Apart from the call for a full judicial inquiry, there were other proposals for action.

The ICJ will consider international war crimes indictments of the Indonesian officers in command at Balibo. Activists plan to prepare a report to be publicly released in Australia, New Zealand and the UK when President Suharto is in London next April. Shirley Shackleton's book is due for release next year, and several film-makers are preparing documentaries on Balibo.

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