Reporters Without Borders voiced outrage today at the pressure applied by the federal government so that three hearings in a coroner’s enquiry into the death of Brian Peters and four others journalists in East Timor in 1975 are held in camera.
"The secrecy now surrounding the hearings is the results of disquiet within the government about the increasingly serious allegations of lying by former senior officials in the government and intelligence services," Reporters Without Borders said.
"Who can seriously believe that the testimony of officials about events of 30 years ago will endanger Australia’s secret services," the press freedom organisation added. "If the Canberra government is not afraid of the truth, it should let the courts do their work with complete transparency."
Coroner Dorelle Pinch yesterday agreed to hold the hearings behind closed doors after the federal government claimed on the basis of two letters from the Defence Signals Directorate that "vital defence interests" would be threatened if they were revealed to the public and press. As a result, journalists could be imprisoned if they publish information given during the three hearings.
The Sydney Morning Herald quoted a leading international authority on signals intelligence, Desmond Ball, as saying it was "nonsense" to impose secrecy on the hearings.
The Peters family lawyer, John Stratton, has been given permission to attend the three hearings but is forbidden to reveal what the witnesses say. Shirley Shackleton, the wife of one of the journalists killed with Peters in the East Timor border town of Balibo, told Reporters Without Borders it was a government attempt to "whitewash" what happened and stop the truth emerging.
The “Balibo Five” were a group of journalists working for two Australian TV stations who were killed by Timorese paramilitaries and Indonesian soldiers as an Indonesian force prepared to invade East Timor. The group consisted of Australian reporter Greg Shackleton, Australian soundman Tony Stewart, New Zealand cameraman Gary Cunningham, British cameraman Brian Peters and British reporter Malcolm Rennie.
Australian officials said to have lied and destroyed evidence about Indonesia’s premeditated murder of five journalists
The testimony of former members of a Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, including George Brownbill and Ian Cunliffe, brought a major new development on the 11th and 12th days of a coroner’s enquiry into the deaths of five foreign journalists on 16 October 1975 in the East Timor border village of Balibo.
Their testimony showed that, at that time, Australian cabinet ministers were in possession of reports proving that the murder of the five journalists had been premeditated by the Indonesian army, and that the government lied by denying that Jakarta had any direct responsibility.
Reporters Without Borders hails the exceptional work of the enquiry, being conducted by a coroner’s court in the Sydney suburb of Glebe. “Under no circumstances should this investigation be obstructed,” the press freedom organisation said. “It is now essential that the mostsenior Australian and Indonesian officials of that time be called to the witness box to respond to the accusations that have been made against them.”
22 February hearing
Brownbill and Cunliffe, who until now have been forbidden to discuss the case, recounted that when they inspected a Defence Signal Directorate base in Shoal Bay in March 1977, an employee whose name was not made public showed them the transcript of a radio conversation between an Indonesian officer and his superior after the events in Balibo. The Shoal Bay base was used at that time by Australia for intercepting Indonesian military communications.
According to Brownbill and Cunliffe, the Indonesian officer said: “We have located and killed the five journalists on your instructions. We are now awaiting your instructions in order to know what we should do with the bodies and the personal effects of the journalists.”
Cunliffe said the transcript proved that the murders were premeditated and that the Australian government of the day lied when it publicly denied that the Indonesian army was involved. However, this piece of evidence and four other files mysteriously disappeared when the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) moved its offices from Melbourne to Canberra in 1984.
23 February hearing
On the 12th day, former intelligence analyst Gary Lintworth accused the former deputy chief of the Office of Current Intelligence (OCI), John Bennets, of ordering the destruction of documents proving that Australia was aware of the premeditated nature of these murders as early as the day after they had taken place.
Lintworth said he wrote a memo confirming, on the basis of radio intercepts, that the journalists had been killed in Balibo. But Bennets immediately ordered that his memo be destroyed. He told the court that he had never seen such a decision and that it was necessary to maintain good relations with Indonesian at all costs.
The testimony is damning for then Labour Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and the two other cabinet ministers who were told about Indonesia’s involvement in the murders. The Whitlam government denied any such involvement and did not oppose Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor.
“I participated in the drafting of three reports on the death of the journalists and they were sent to the offices of the prime minister, foreign affairs minister and defence minister,” Rowen Osborn, a former OCI official, said, adding that he assumed they were shown to the ministers themselves as their content was so sensitive.
21 February 2007
Australian journalist says militia chief was instigator of “Balibo Five” murders
On the ninth day of the coroner’s hearing on the deaths of five journalists on 16 October 1975 in the East Timor border village of Balibo, a witness identified only as “Glebe 8” denied having any direct knowledge of the murders although the three previous witnesses said they had seen him at the scene.
Retracting everything he told the Australian government’s Sherman investigation in 1990 and the detailed description he gave a European journalist in 1979, “Glebe 8” insisted he was in Nonura, 10 km from Balibo, on the day of the murders and did not arrive in Balibo until the following day.
Pressed by the coroner, “Glebe 8” said that, after the 1979 interview, his brother was been kidnapped, tortured and held for two years in an Indonesian prison, and subsequently disappeared. He said he assumed his brother had been buried somewhere or had been thrown into the sea from a helicopter. He added that he was afraid for his other relatives, some of whom live in East Timor where the Indonesian government still had influence, he said.
On the tenth day of the coroner’s hearing, Australian Jill Jolliffee, who was a freelance journalist at the time of Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, identified Lopez da Cruz, a leader of the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) militia, as being one of the instigators of the murder of the “Balibo Five.”
According to Jolliffee, he made a statement on Indonesian radio on 25 October 1975 in which he said it was necessary to combat the communist forces (meaning the Fretilin rebels) and all its representatives and went on to say: “We killed the communist journalists in Balibo and we would like that to serve as an example to all reporters. The journalists were part of Fretilin and deserved to die.”
On several occasions, Jolliffee stressed that the conditions in which journalists worked in the 1970s were very different from those prevailing today. “Back then we were on our own,” she said. “We didn’t get any prior instructions about security from our employers. You were better off working from one side or the other in a war.”
She also confirmed testimony on previous days of the hearing in which various witnesses identified “Major Andreas” (Yunis Yosfier) and “Team Susi” as being among those who had instigated the murders of the journalists.
A statement made in 1976 by the late Celestino Martins, the founder of the KOTA party, was also read to the court. Martins said in the statement that he was with Dading, Andreas and Taolin on the morning that the journalist were killed and that he saw their bodies being burned. Martins was brought back from Europe by Taolin two years after the invasion of East Timor and died in his hotel room on the evening of his arrival.
Testimony supports claim that death of “Balibo Five” was premeditated murder
The eighth day of a coroner’s hearing on the deaths of British cameraman Brian Peters and four other journalists on 16 October 1975 in the East Timor border village of Balibo confirmed that their deaths were planned and orchestrated by Indonesian army officers. The testimony of Fernando Mariz, the former bodyguard of Col. Dading Kabualdi, and another witness identified as “M4” reinforced the claim that the “Balibo Five” were deliberately murdered.
Mariz, who did not hesitate to give his name to the court, said he told his superior, “Major Leo” (Sofyan Effendi), on the eve of the attack on Balibo that there were five journalists in the village. He had learned this by listening to Maubere Radio, a station operated by the Fretilin rebels. His superior replied that the Indonesian forces had planned “good treatment” for the journalists. Mariz said he understood this to mean they would be killed.
The Indonesian forces were clearly aware of the dangers posed by news coverage of their invasion, Mariz said, and Col. Kabualdi seemed to have no hesitation in eliminating the journalists.
Mariz also said that Kabualdi was in regular contact with the high command to inform it of what was happening in the theatre of operations. Two pro-Indonesian technicians of Portuguese nationality had been secretly given the job of monitoring Fretilin communications, including those that could have referred to the presence of the journalists. On 16 October 1975, Mariz was part of a convoy that went from Batugarde to Maliana via Balibo. It was there that members of the Timorese Democratic Union militia told him the journalists had been killed.
The testimony by “M4” confirmed that the fighting was all over by 10 a.m. and that, after they had been killed, the journalists were dressed in Portuguese army uniforms and photographed with firearms placed beside them. The Indonesian army never published these photos. But smoke could be seen coming out of the “Chinese house” in an Indonesian TV report just a few hours after Balibo was taken. “M4” said the bodies were burned in this “Chinese house” and the soldiers went out of their way to get rid of all evidence. “M4” also reported that commander Joao Tavares was seen a few weeks later with the camera of one of the journalists.
In the previous day’s hearing, a witness identified as “G7” gave further details about the method used to dispose of the bodies of the journalists. An officer ordered soldiers to collect wood and then, with the help of kerosene, the bodies were completely incinerated.
Witnesses describe how Indonesian troops covered up murder of “Balibo Five”
In two more days of testimony on 9 and 12 February to a coroner’s court in Glebe, Sydney, witnesses provided more details about the circumstances in which cameraman Brian Peters and four other journalist working for Australian TV stations died in the East Timor border village of Balibo on 16 October 1975.
A former fighter with the Fretilin guerrillas who was 16 at the time confirmed on 9 February that the fighting had stopped before the Indonesian army entered Balibo. After exchanging shots for an hour, the Timorese had pulled out of the town. Before withdrawing from his position, he said he saw Peters and another journalist approach them to film the offensive, including a warship that had bombarded the locality.
He added that he had come to testify in Sydney in order to do his duty towards the Timor “martyrs” who had died on his country’s soil. Another former Fretilin combatant confirmed this account of the Indonesian offensive.
On 12 February, a former Fretilin officer, Col. Subico, confirmed that the journalists never participated in any armed operations and did not use Fretilin’s radio transmitter. He said he had asked the journalists to withdraw from the village as the Indonesian troops approached. They refused because they were waiting for Peters and another journalist, who had gone towards a fort to film the Indonesian advance.
By 7:30 a.m. there were no longer any Fretilin members in the centre of the village, he said. After stressing that the footage filmed by the journalists would have shown that Indonesia was invading Timor, the former rebel officer ruled out any possibility that they were killed in an exchange of shots.
A witness identified as “P 1” who was an aide to Indonesian army Col. Dading Kalbuadi told the court on 12 February that he was in Balibo from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the day the five journalists were killed. He said he saw the bodies in a house. Portuguese army uniforms had been put on them and automatic rifles that no longer worked had been placed near the bodies, he said. In the course of the following week, he saw an Indonesian soldier with a camera of western make, and another soldier with a western watch. He added that many soldiers subsequently boasted of having killed one of the journalists, thereby hoping to be promoted.
Finally, a witness identified as “G7” who was a Fretilin agent who infiltrated the Indonesian army testified that three days later, he and other soldiers and militiamen were sent to “clean up” the house where the journalists were killed. An officer ordered them to burn the bodies again and to disperse the remains. The witness burst into tears after describing this macabre task.
More witnesses confirm that “Balibo Five” were murdered by Indonesian forces
In another day of testimony to a coroner’s court in Glebe, Sydney, three former Timorese militiamen working for the Indonesian special forces during the October 1975 attack on the East Timor town of Balibo confirmed today that Indonesian army Capt. Yunus Yosfiah was present.
The witness known as “Glebe 3,” a former Indonesian army auxiliary, said he saw cameraman Brian Peters with his hands in the air cry “Australian” and then collapse to the ground. The former militiaman cried while being questioned.
The witness “Glebe 4,” who was also hired by the Indonesian army, was questioned in detail about the forces involved in the attack on Balibo. There were 500 fighters - 120 Timorese militiamen and about 400 Indonesian Kopassus special forces - back by artillery and the navy. After two days of bombardment, all the civilians had fled. Only five guerrillas of the Fretilin stayed to defend the town but as the Indonesian troops advanced, they also withdrew.
As a result, no fighting was taking place when the Indonesian army finally entered Balibo, where Peters and four other journalists had remained. In order to be identified, they had painted the Australian flag on the side of a house. This was confirmed by a film shot by Portuguese journalists a few days before the town was taken. It shows the journalists painting a wall.
One of the five Fretilin fighters, “Glebe 7,” told the hearing that from his hiding place on the outskirts of the town, he saw an officer fire on Peters. He also heard Peters’ companions cry “Journalists” before shots rang out. “Glebe 5,” a Timorese hired to work with the Kopassus, confirmed seeing the bodies of the five journalists in a Balibo house two hours later.
Witness says he saw former Indonesian information minister shoot cameraman
An inquest being held in the Sydney suburb of Glebe into the death of British cameraman Brian Peters, one a group of five journalists working for Australian TV stations who were killed in the East Timor town of Balibo in 1975, heard dramatic allegations yesterday about the multiple murder.
A Timorese witness identified only as “Glebe 2” for his protection, accused former Indonesian information minister Yunus Yosfiah, then a captain in the Indonesian army, of opening fire on Peters although he was unarmed. Peters had pleaded with Yosfiah with his hands in the air before he was shot, he said.
Indonesian soldiers then shot the other journalists with the help of Timorese paramilitaries, said the witness, a former member of a pro-Indonesian militia. He said he was about 50 metres away and to one side, when he saw Capt. Yosfiah shoot Peters at point-blank range without saying a word. “I believe Yunus killed Brian Peters,” the witness told the judge.
A second witness, “Glebe 4,” said he saw three white men gunned down by two Indonesian soldiers inside a Chinese shop in Balibo.
Until he agreed to testify to this Australian court, “Glebe 2” supported the official Indonesian version of this episode. The Jakarta authorities reportedly used his name and his statement to claim that the five journalists were killed when fired on by members of Fretilin (the Revolutionary Front for the Independence of East Timor) while in a house. According to the official account, a mortar shell set fire to the house and burned their bodies.
It was in 1999 that this key witness finally decided to tell an Australian journalist what really happened, and thereby give the lie to the official version.
Today, “Glebe 2” described how Col. Dading Kalbuadi, the commander of the Indonesian invasion force, flew by helicopter to the scene of the incident to make sure the journalists’ bodies were burned in another house. The soldiers also destroyed all their documents and equipment.
When the Australian government sent a team of investigators to the scene of the murders a year later, “Glebe 2” gave them the official story. An Indonesian colonel, Ed Sinaga, reportedly even sat in on the interview, posing as a servant of “Glebe 2,” in order to ensure he did not tell the truth.
Yosfiah, who refused to travel to Sydney for the inquest, denied these allegations in an interview yesterday for the Australian radio and TV broadcaster ABC. He insisted he never saw the five journalists but he did not deny leading the attack on Balibo on 16 October 1975, the day they were killed. “Glebe 2” was lying, he said.
Reopening of investigation into the deaths of "Balibo Five"
Reporters Without Borders today hailed the reopening of the investigation into the death of TV cameraman Brian Peters, a member of a group of five journalists of Australian, New Zealand and British nationality who were killed by Indonesian soldiers and paramilitaries in East Timor in October 1975.
“This new investigation 30 years after the events offers an historic opportunity to shed light on the death of five reporters who were key witnesses of the Indonesian army’s invasion of East Timor,” the press freedom organisation said. “The occupation and subsequent liberation of this former Portuguese colony were marked by serious human rights violations, including the deaths of journalists.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “It is time the Indonesian army agreed to provide information about those suspected of being responsible, even if they were military personnel. We call on the governments concerned, above all the Indonesian and Australian governments, to cooperate in this so that the families can finally obtain justice.”
The coroner’s court of Glebe, a suburb of Sydney (New South Wales) opened an inquest today into Peters’ death on 16 October 1975 in the East Timor border town of Balibo. A 26-year-old British cameraman working for the privately-owned Australian TV station TCN-9, Peters was a New South Wales resident.
The court was told of the failure of the various judicial procedures undertaken in this case since 1975. Describing the inquest as first enquiry to be conducted in Australia in an “open, public and completely independent” manner, the assisting counsel referred to the findings of the East Timor Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the journalists were murdered and were not killed in crossfire. Testimony will be heard from Australian and Timorese witnesses, but all the Indonesian officials and military personnel who were asked to testify refused.
The inquest, which is expected to take three weeks, will inter alia examine whether the Australian authorities, including former Labour Party Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, now aged 92, were aware of an order to eliminate the journalists after Indonesian army communications were intercepted.
Shirley Shackleton, the widow of one of the journalists killed with Peters, Australian Greg Shackleton, told Reporters Without Borders: “All that we learn about Brian will help us to shed light on the other four (...) The families have been calling for a special inquest into this case for the past four years. The arrival of a new coroner helped to get things going.”
Peters and Shackleton are two of the so-called “Balibo Five", a group of five journalists working for two Australian TV stations who were killed in Balibo by Timorese paramilitaries and Indonesian troops who were preparing for a full invasion of the territory that took place on 7 December 1975.
Shackleton, Australian soundman Tony Stewart and New Zealander cameraman Gary Cunningham worked for Melbourne-based HSV-7. Peters and British reporter Malcolm Rennie worked for Sidney-based TCN-9. Another journalist, Australian Roger East, was killed on 8 December 1975.
There have been many abortive attempts to inquire into their deaths, including attempts in 1975, 1976, 1996 and 1999 by the Australian government, including through its embassy in Jakarta to seek information.
Members of the Historical Crime Unit formed by the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) began an investigation into their deaths in 2000 and the UN issued international arrest warrants for three Indonesians, including former cabinet minister Yunus Yosfiah, on 3 February 2001. The warrants were never executed. The same year, UNTAET chief Sergio Vieira de Mello asked the Indonesian interior minister if nine suspects could be questioned in connection with the case. This request was also turned down.
The failure of all the previous attempts was due above all to the Indonesian government’s refusal for provide information about the fate of the journalists’ bodies, which were probably buried or burned without any autopsy being carried out, and the inability to question the key protagonists, who are clearly trying to evade Australian and international justice.
The names of Peters, Rennie, Shackleton, Cunningham, Stewart and East are to be inscribed on the Memorial for Journalists killed since 1945 which Reporters Without Borders and the Bayeux city hall will formally inaugurate when it is completed in May 2007.