337 Submission to Peacock

Canberra, 13 November 1975


Portuguese Timor: Missing Newsmen

You will have seen the telegrams1 from Jakarta providing final Indonesian confirmation of the deaths of the five newsmen missing at Balibo in Portuguese Timor since the fighting there on 16 October. Although all five were working for Australian television channels, only two were bearers of Australian passports. Two others were British nationals and the fifth was a New Zealander.

  1. This confirmation has been a long time coming. The Australian Embassy in Jakarta has made approaches to the Indonesians virtually every day and at numerous and various levels. Virtually each day they have promised something positive; and each day the Embassy has been disappointed. The Embassy sent an officer to Kupang in Indonesian Timor hoping to enlist Indonesian assistance in getting him to the border area. In fact the officer concerned was effectively quarantined in Kupang and was not permitted to proceed to the border. A second, more senior officer was sent to Kupang late last week but again without any effective result. Mr Whitlam spoke to the Indonesian Ambassador in Canberra late last week on the matter and subsequently followed-up with a letter2 to be conveyed by the Indonesian Ambassador to President Soeharto. (The Ambassador returned to Jakarta for consultations on 11 November.)
  2. In the event, General Yoga (Head of BAKIN, the Indonesian State Intelligence body) has now confirmed the death of the newsmen. He did this during a call by the Australian Ambassador in Jakarta on 12 November. He handed over to Mr Woolcott four boxes of remains as well as a letter from an APODETileader (the Rajah of Atsabe) purporting to describe the possible circumstances in which the newsmen had met their deaths. General Yoga also handed over some personal effects-some passports, other documents and photographic equipment.
  3. The next-of-kin have been informed that as a result of this new evidence we are now satisfied that the five newsmen are dead. It would be appropriate for a press statement to this effect now to be released and a draft text has been submitted to you separately.3 You might also wish to consider having a telegram sent to the next-of-kin in your name. The absence of positive identification of the individuals concerned would require that no specific reference to names be made in a telegram from you to the next-of-kin. Our suggested text has been drafted accordingly.
  4. The personal effects of the newsmen are being despatched by airbag from Jakarta.
  5. The question remains of what should be done with the remains which are apparently badly decomposed and indeed, according to the advice from the Australian Embassy doctor, hardly recognisable as human. Oral advice from all of the next-of-kin of the newsmen is that the remains should be buried in Indonesia. The next-of-kin have the legal right to give instructions on the disposal of the remains and we would propose to instruct the Embassy in Jakarta accordingly. However, it is to be noted that such action by the Government could lead to criticism from groups like the Australian Journalists Association and related bodies which might take the view that the Government has avoided having the remains brought to Australia for fear of allowing a forensic investigation which might show that the newsmen had all been shot. In this regard you will be aware that the long delay in obtaining the facts about the journalists' death has led to speculation in Australia that the Indonesians have been indulging in some form of a cover-up. FRETILIN sources have claimed that the five newsmen were executed after capture in order to prevent their informing the outside world of Indonesian involvement in the attack on Balibo.
  6. We ourselves have been unable to establish with certainty the circumstances and manner in which the newsmen died. We knew4 that at least four of the missing newsmen had probably been killed by Indonesian or pro-Indonesian forces who attacked Balibo. But we cannot be certain whether the newsmen were accidentally killed by mortar or small arms fire, or deliberately shot. Their bodies may have been burnt accidentally as a result of the mortar attack or may have been deliberately burnt in an attempt to conceal their identity and/or manner in which they were killed.
  7. In short, then, there would be some considerable support in the Australian community for returning the remains to Australia, at Government expense, to allow a forensic examination to be carried out. The Department, however, would recommend against this. We have an obligation to respect the wishes of the next-of-kin. At the same time, to avoid any later embarrassment, we would propose asking the next-of-kin to convey in writing their instruction that the remains be buried in Indonesia.
  8. Our Embassy in Jakarta has advised that there may be some difficulties about burying the remains in Jakarta, e.g. the provision of death certificates and passports. We are cabling Jakarta to obtain further information with a view to enabling burial to proceed.
  9. Recommendations
    It is recommended that you agree:
    1. to the despatch of the suggested telegram to the next-of-kin; and
    2. that we proceed with disposal of the bodies in a common grave in Jakarta-provided written instructions to this effect are received from the next-of-kin.5

K.H.ROGERS - First Assistant Secretary- International Organisations and Protocol Division



I regret that I have to advise, in confirmation of what my Department has already informed you, that the Australian Embassy in Jakarta has received what appears to be conclusive evidence that the five journalists missing in Balibo, Portuguese Timor, were killed.

In my capacity as Minister for Foreign Affairs I wish to express my deepest sympathy to you and the families of the journalists on behalf of the Australian Government.


[NAA: Al838, 3038/10/12/4, ii]