297 Cablegram to Canberra

Jakarta, 25 October 1975, 5.40 p.m.


Portuguese Timor: Missing Journalists

Since I spoke to Adenan Taylor has spoken again to Colonel Sunarso, Liaison Officer in BAKIN.

  1. Sunarso has just confirmed to Taylor that the five missing journalists died in the house in Balibo. He said the house had been hit by mortar fire. Apparently there had been a sizeable amount of kerosene in the house because the mortar caused considerable fire which burned the bodies.
  2. Asked about positive identification Sunarso said he had seen (in Jakarta) two passports (Shackleton's and Rennie's) and two notebooks which were in good condition. He said these items had apparently been in a container blown clear of the house when the mortar exploded. We asked for these and any other items belonging to the five that might exist. If they were in Jakarta they could be given to us, if in Timor to Johnson. Taylor stressed that we wanted to ensure that the bodies of the deceased were dealt with in accordance with the wishes of the next-of-kin. Sunarso said he would check on these points.
  3. Sunarso gave us photocopies of one handwritten page from a reporter's notebook and two handwritten pages from a letter dated 15 October. From its contents it seems that the letter was written by one of the Channel Nine men. We shall send by Monday's bag unless you want us to cable the texts. One extract (undated) suggests that the journalists remained in Balibo after FRETILIN forces had 'abandoned the town', the letter dated 15th October refers to having 'suffered a few heavy bombardments ... mainly mortars which quite honestly frighten. . . me'. This does raise the question of why they remained.
  4. Sunarso said it was his personal opinion that the delay in confirming to us the journalists' deaths resulted from a lack of coordination within the Indonesian Government. (But see JA2612.1)
  5. Sunarso stressed that his advice on the deaths was not a formal official response to our requests. General Yoga, Head of BAKIN, or Foreign Minister Malik would inform me officially in the next few days. Taylor stressed the importance we placed on getting clear official confirmation of the deaths as soon as possible.
  6. Sunarso's advice raises the problem of what you can now tell the next-of-kin. We discussed this with him. He said he would not want anything you said to be linked with the Indonesian Government or with this Embassy (which would imply that the Indonesian Government was involved). You might consider saying, however, that new information you have received suggests that all five are dead and that you expect to be able to confirm this officially soon. We will not mention this to enquirers here until you have done so and we can refer to what you say.
  7. I shall, of course, raise the matter of personal effects and the remains of the bodies, if any at this stage, when I am officially informed and we shall continue to follow up with Sunarso and other contacts.
  8. Taylor and I spoke to Johnson in Kupang again this morning. He said it seems his movements have been restricted to the town of Kupang.
  9. Since drafting the above Sunarso has rung to say that Yoga will see the Ambassador on Monday morning.


[NAA: A10463, 801/13/11/5, i]