The Balibó Five

In October 1975, five Australian-based journalists, Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters were sent by TV Channels 7 and 9 to East Timor to investigate hit-run attacks along the border with Indonesian-controlled West Timor.

They were there to cover what was then the biggest emerging story in the region – the collapse of the decolonisation process in East Timor and the threat of invasion by neighbouring Indonesia.

These were young men, all in their twenties, wanting to report to Australia and the world what was happening in East Timor.

They set out for the border between East Timor and Indonesia. This was an incredibly difficult and dangerous assignment.

By Tuesday 14th October all five journalists were in Balibó, together with José Ramos-Horta, then one of the Fretilin leaders. Together they went on a patrol run with Fretilin troops and filmed a large build-up of Indonesian battleships off shore.

That day José Ramos-Horta returned to Dili, taking with him film from both news teams for dispatch to Australia. These were one of the last reports the five newsmen managed to get out.

They dubbed the house they slept in “the Australian embassy,” and then jokingly the “Commonwealth secretariat” since Cunningham was a New Zealander, and Peters and Rennie were British.

An Australian flag was painted on the house in the hope that it would afford them some protection in the event of attack. As professional journalists there to do a job, they did not expect to be personally targeted.

They were horribly wrong. The five were murdered by Indonesian forces on 16th October 1975.

It took nearly a month for the Australian Government to confirm the fate of the journalists, amidst an outcry from the Australian public over their deaths and the Australian Government’s response to the invasion of East Timor.

On 5th of December 1975, what were said to be the remains of the journalists were buried in a Jakarta cemetery, in a single coffin, in a ceremony attended by several embassy staff and their spouses, resident Australian journalists and the secretary of the Indonesian Journalists Association.

None of the families was invited. Instead they were left to deal with their own grief in the days, months and years to come. The circumstances of their deaths have been a source of controversy since.  No one has been charged with their murder. Two Australian Government inquiries left many questions unanswered.

A NSW Coronial Inquiry in 2007 found two senior Indonesian soldiers were responsible for the deaths of the journalist and recommended that prosecutions should be commenced by the Attorney General under the Criminal Code for War Crimes. These men have not been charged to date. Below are the findings.

FINDING BY NSW DEPUTY STATE CORONER DORELLE PINCH SECTION 22(1) CORONERS ACT 1980

Brian Raymond Peters, in the company of fellow journalists Gary James Cunningham, Malcolm Harvie Rennie, Gregory John Shackleton and Anthony John Stewart, collectively known as “the Balibó Five”, died at Balibó 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 Balibó. There is strong circumstantial evidence that those orders emanated from the Head of the Indonesian Special Forces, Major-General Benny Murdani to Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, Special Forces Group Commander in Timor, and then to Captain Yosfiah. 

Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters were deliberately murdered because they were reporting events that the Indonesian military wanted to keep secret.

Roger East, another Australian journalist who travelled to East Timor to report on the fate of the Balibó Five, was shot on the wharf in Dili on 8th December 1975, as part of a mass execution of civilians. The ABC have a memorial page about Roger here http://www.abc.net.au/corp/memorial/rogereast.htm

The Balibo 5 and Roger East weren’t the only ones to die. In the ensuing conflict and the 24 years of Indonesian occupation, it has been estimated that over 200,000 East Timorese died. This included Falintil soldiers and civilians from the village of Balibó and the surrounding Bobonaro district.

The house where the journalists stayed, referred to as the Balibó Flag House, and now known as the Balibó Community Learning Centre, is dedicated to them.