430 Submission to Peacock

Canberra, 5 March 1976


Timor: Death of Journalists: Australian Journalists Association

It was reported in the press on 3 March that the Australian Journalists Association is writing to you (and to the Prime Minister and Mr Whitlam) calling for an 'immediate public probe into all aspects of the alleged massacre of the five television newsmen in East Timor last October'. The AJA is reported to have condemned the Department's enquiry and information on the deaths as 'inadequate, incomplete and incompetent' and to have charged that 'the official statement from pro-Indonesian parties has been accepted and obvious discrepancies ignored'. The Victorian Secretary of the AJA is quoted as especially drawing attention to the inconsistency between the report that the five men were incinerated and the fact that their personal papers including passports showed no sign of burning. The AJA statement, like Mr J. Dunn's recent paper on Timor,1 comes at a time when the campaign for an independent East Timor is flagging.

Background papers

  1. We attach to this submission copies of your press release of 13 November 19752 and of the Department's letter of 14 November 1975 sent to Mr S. Crosland, Federal Secretary of the AJA, who had called on behalf of the AJA for a 'full enquiry at highest possible level to ascertain full facts'.3 A copy of the Department's paper on steps taken in October-November4 is also attached.


  1. The Government has said that it has received 'what appears to be authoritative evidence that the five men were killed during an attack on the town of Balibo by UDT, APODETI and KOTA forces on 16 October', and that 'in the light of this information ... (it) had concluded that there was no hope that any of the newsmen might have survived'.
  2. The authoritative evidence referred to was handed to the Australian Ambassador in Jakarta by General Yoga, head of BAKIN, on 12 November 1975. It amounted to a letter from the Raja of Atsabe5 and documents, photographic equipment and some personal effects 'received from the UDT-APODETI-KOTA forces', and also the remains of four of the men as found in Balibo and of the fifth man as found by an APODETI patrol outside Balibo on 26--27 October. Earlier an Embassy official had been passed photograph copies of notebooks belonging to the newsmen.
  3. Consideration was given to whether the remains should be returned to Australia for forensic examination. But the next-of-kin did not seek the return of the remains: their advice was that the remains should be buried in Indonesia. It was felt that we should respect the wishes of the next-of-kin, in the knowledge, however, that, by not insisting that the remains be returned here for forensic examination, there could be some criticism that we were simply helping in an Indonesian cover up.
  4. The remains were buried in Jakarta on 5 December.

What did really happen?

  1. We are arranging for you to be shown separately a note prepared at the Department's request by the Joint Intelligence Organisation on 30 October, 1975, which drew together the significant information available about the fate of the newsmen.6
  2. . It will be noted that the account of events given by FRETILIN and by the Portuguese newsmen differ from the Indonesian version, but also conflict with one another.
  3. One conclusion that could be drawn from the evidence available could be that the journalists were mistakenly identified as combatants and were killed in the final stages of the assault on Balibo, and that immediate action was taken to destroy the evidence. But the events as known would also be consistent with the reconstruction that, first, one journalist was shot during the assault, and then the remainder were shot to eliminate witnesses, and the bodies removed and burnt. Death by mortar in the house where the burnt bodies were found, as stated by UDT and the Indonesians, seems a less likely explanation, but cannot be ruled out. Photographs published in the Indonesian and Australian press of the house in which the bodies were allegedly found showed some evidence of a fire. The important point is that in all cases we are talking about suppositions only. On the basis of the evidence available we are unable to come to positive conclusions as to the circumstances and manner of the death of the newsmen. But our information leaves no doubt that the journalists are dead. It seems certain that they were killed by Indonesian or pro-Indonesian forces.

The role of the Department

  1. The AJA is very severe in its criticism of the role of the Department.
  2. It is true that we have been unable to establish with certainty the circumstances and manner in which the five newsmen died. But this has not been for the want of trying.
  3. We knew7 that at least four of the newsmen had probably been killed during the attack by Indonesian and pro-Indonesian forces on Balibo on 16 October7. Immediately, that is on 17 October, we asked the Embassy in Jakarta to institute urgent enquiries about the newsmen; at the same time we asked the ICRC in Darwin to do likewise; and at the direction of Senator Willesee a departmental officer accompanied an ICRC flight into Dili to enquire about the missing newsmen. On 18 October our Ambassador in Jakarta made representations to Malik about the newsmen. The subsequent record shows that representations to the Indonesians were renewed virtually every day and at numerous and various levels. Virtually each day our Embassy was promised something positive; but each day the Embassy was disappointed.
  4. We had hoped to get an officer to the border areas and possibly to Balibo to institute on­ the-spot enquiries. An officer from the Embassy did in fact get as far as Kupang, in Indonesian Timor, but he was virtually quarantined there and not permitted to proceed to the border. A second, and more senior, officer was then sent to Kupang, but again without any effective result. The possibility of trying to reach Balibo through Dili was not seriously considered. It would have involved crossing the lines of fire and placing the officer concerned in a very hazardous position. The then Government would not have authorised such a venture and the Department would not have recommended it.
  5. On 10 November press reports from Dili cited an account by three FRETILIN militiamen who claimed to have witnessed the fighting in Balibo. According to their account, the five newsmen were captured by Indonesian forces and lined up along the wall of a house. According to the militiamen, as they were crawling away, they heard the newsmen screaming, a burst of automatic fire, and then silence.
  6. On 11 November we asked the International Red Cross whether they could arrange for their representatives in Dili to interview the militiamen concerned. The ICRC was initially reluctant, maintaining that what we proposed would compromise their neutrality. On 14 November, the ICRC agreed to conduct a confidential interview and instruct their Dili representatives accordingly. On 26 November we asked the ICRC representative in Darwin (Pasquier) whether he had yet been able to contact the militiamen. The representative replied that the ICRC had not been able to locate the men concerned and had been told that they had returned to the border area; Pasquier had asked the FRETILIN authorities in Dili to assist him in locating the militiamen. He indicated to us that he hoped to be able to submit a report to us by 10 December. In the event the ICRC team was evacuated in early December without having been able to interview the militiamen.
  7. Meanwhile, in Jakarta, General Yoga had confirmed on 12 November that the journalists had indeed been killed (para 4 above). Personal effects and remains of the journalists were handed over to our Ambassador the same day. General Yoga suggested that other personal effects had presumably been burnt or stolen.
  8. The Indonesians throughout maintained that they had had nothing to do with the deaths of the journalists. Our Ambassador in Jakarta many times addressed pointed questions to the Indonesians but was unable to elicit satisfactory answers. As far as the Indonesians were concerned, with the delivery of the remains and personal effects to the Embassy on 12 November, the incident was closed.
  9. The chronology prepared by the Department of the efforts made to discover the fate of the journalists tells its own story. In addition Mr Whitlam spoke on 5 November to the Indonesian Ambassador in Canberra about the journalists. He subsequently followed this up with a letter to President Suharto dated 7 November.8 The fact of this high-level message has never been made public, but there would seem no reason why, perhaps with the author's permission, the AJA might not be told of it.
  10. The AJA has asked why, if the five newsmen were incinerated, their personal effects, including passports, were not also burnt. This question was among those the Embassy in Jakarta raised with the Indonesians. The reply was that the items had apparently been in a container blown clear of the house by the mortar explosions. While an unlikely answer, the Indonesians stuck to it.


  1. We had a report from our mission in Geneva in early January9 that the KOTA personality, Martins, appeared to have defected from the Indonesian side, and among other things, was willing to provide information (including evidence in the form of bones which he claimed were in his possession) on 'what really happened at Balibo'-he having been in the area at the time. Martins left Geneva immediately after calling on our mission and his present whereabouts is unknown. There was a report late last month that he was in Britain and that he intended to call on our High Commission. But to date he has not done so.
  2. The information we have about Martins suggests that he is mentally unstable. While London and Geneva have been authorized to receive him should he call again, we have been disinclined to have them seek him out.

The new AJA approach

  1. It would be reasonable to assume that the AJA is pursuing this matter mainly because many of its members believe that Indonesia should accept full responsibility for what happened at Balibo: the objective is to have the Indonesians publicly condemned. The Association, of course, has a responsibility to show itself to be willing to act on behalf of its members, who have been or may be placed in situations of danger. The proposal for a public enquiry is presumably designed at least in part to force the hand of the Government to admit to Indonesian involvement in the events leading to the deaths of the journalists.
  2. We have not previously acknowledged officially Indonesian involvement in the cross­ border operations which took place at that time. (Senator Willesee's comments on 30 October1) were somewhat qualified.) The AJA no doubt regards this as a nonsense. But it would be a major departure for the Government to go beyond what has previously been said about the extent of Indonesian involvement in these early weeks. (And should we wish to be raking over the coals at this late stage?) If Ministers, nonetheless, were to want to acknowledge officially Indonesian involvement in the early cross-border operations, we think that they should first take advice from the no.
  3. Perhaps all that should be said to the AJA is that while there is no doubt that the UDT/APODETI/KOTA forces approached the Balibo area from bases inside Indonesian Timor, and that the UDT/APODETI/KOTA soldiers and civilians who had retreated into Indonesian Timor during September were looked after by the Indonesian Government, the Government nevertheless has to accept the reports on events in Balibo as received from UDT/APODETI/KOTA. The Government can neither confirm nor deny reports that Indonesian troops were involved across the border, including Balibo, at the time.

What more can we do?

  1. We can, of course, ask the ICRC to renew its enquiries at such time as it is allowed to resume its operations. Our record is good here. We have been active in pressing for the return of the ICRC to Timor and we can inform the AJA that we shall continue to do so.
  2. As for a new Government enquiry, we frankly do not know what more can be done. We could perhaps approach the Indonesian Government again to seek their assistance in facilitating a visit by an officer or an Australian enquiry team to Balibo. We could similarly ask for their assistance in arranging interviews with persons who may have been in Balibo at the time of the deaths of the journalists. Interviews with the Raja of Atsabe and the UDT leader, Lopez [da] Cruz, could be suggested.
  3. But there is no question that the Indonesian reaction would be sharply negative. The matter for them is a closed book. Nevertheless, it is for consideration whether we should court the rebuff by proposing to the Indonesians that, with the fighting in the Balibo area now apparently at an end, an Australian enquiry team be permitted to proceed to the area for on­ the-spot investigations.
  4. A further possibility is that we could seek to bring the remains of the journalists back to Australia for forensic examination, if all the next-of-kin would now agree (see para 5 above). But we do not see quite what that would achieve except to keep the issue in the newspapers in a way which aggravates anti-Indonesian feeling.
  5. It is not easy to think of other possibilities. It is obviously unrealistic to think that Australia can simply brush aside Indonesian and PGET opposition by unilaterally sending an Australian enquiry team to Balibo.


  1. It may be possible to respond by a further letter to the new representations by the AJA when they are received. We would recommend, however, that a better approach on this occasion would be for the Department to invite the President of the AJA to call in to discuss the matter. This would enable us to explore the AJA's own ideas and to explain in detail the action already taken by the Government.
  2. It is recommended that you agree to this course of action.1)

G.B.FEAKES - First Assistant Secretary - South-East Asia and PNG Division

[NAA: A1838, 3038/10/1/2. v]