Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Remembering Balibo [September 13]

On the eve of the fortieth anniversary of the murder of the Balibo Five i am posting this essay originally commissioned and published by Meanjin literary magazine:

Their eyes stare straight out at you from five grainy black-and-white photos on the wall. Such young faces, framed by luxuriant waves of hair in various stages of bouffant rebellion. The hair is unmistakably from the seventies, but those eyes could be staring at you from any decade. The men’s facial expressions seem to cover the spectrum of human emotions. Malcolm Rennie is grinning, Brian Peters has a half-smile, and there’s a faint wry twist to Gary Cunningham’s lips. But Greg Shackleton is furrow-browed and there is something haunted in Tony Stewart’s serious, wide-eyed gaze.

Resisting the tabloid temptation to interpret this as a look of foreboding, I remind myself that most of these photos were professional portraits, posed by media men whose working lives revolved around cameras. None of them expected to die for that privilege.

The photos hang on the wall of a small house in the village of Balibo, near the north-west coast of Timor-Leste. The wall has had a fresh coat of powder-blue paint, courtesy of cash from the Victorian Government, and the house has been renamed the Balibo Community Learning Centre. Until recently, though, it was known as ‘The House of the Flag’. The fresh paint has covered up the outline of an Australian flag hastily daubed on the wall by Channel Seven news reporter Greg Shackleton sometime on 11 October 1975, and shown in one of his last TV broadcasts from what was then called Portuguese Timor.

Now it is June 2005, and inside the dimly lit house there’s a group of Timorese women doing a sewing workshop, and a handful of Australian travellers who’ve come to pay homage. The Timorese women nod and smile at the visitors but we Australians avoid each other’s gaze. Tears seem self-indulgent here.

Back outside in the tropical afternoon, I consider climbing up to the jagged ruins of a Portuguese fort at the top of the hill to the left. But they look deserted so I turn right into the main square, where a clutch of children are milling around the foot of a monument. Erected by the Indonesians to celebrate East Timor’s so-called ‘integration’ into the neighbouring republic in 1976, its plinth supports the triumphal figure of a Timorese man carrying a flag almost as big as he is.

I am reminded of images captured by television reporters in the previous century, pictures of giant statues of Stalin and Lenin being toppled by exultant crowds in post-communist Eastern Europe. Those images will be replayed over and over in decades to come, shorthand symbols of the human will to freedom and self-determination, and of the media’s role in bearing witness to those moments in history.

Here in Balibo, the statue stands firm as the children kick a frayed soccer ball against the base and wait for their mothers to emerge from the community centre. The kids seem happy enough to have their photos taken by the latest Australian journalist to visit this town, and some of them hold their fingers up in a V sign. V for Viva Xanana Gusmão? V for peace? For victory?

Behind the statue, on the other side of the square, is a row of burnt-out buildings—roofless and daubed with fresh graffiti—the latest monuments to Indonesia’s 24-year occupation of Timor-Leste. They were torched by departing troops in 1999 after the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence. I move closer and take a photo of these charred shells of former homes, to remind myself of the criminal spite that accompanied that long-awaited separation.

Before continuing on my journey southwards, I return to the powder-blue wall to take a last look at those staring faces, and try to commit those five names to memory: Malcolm Rennie, Brian Peters, Gary Cunningham, Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart.

In June 2009 I ask a class of Australian journalism students, aged between about twenty and fifty, if they have heard of the Balibo Five. When less than a quarter of them hesitantly raise their hands, I find myself wondering—when did this phrase disappear from our communal vocabulary? How has this Grimms tale of calculated murder and political subterfuge been allowed to disappear from the public sphere, and how should it be told now, to bring it back to life?


Once upon a time there was a tiny nation with large oil reserves and an aggressive neighbour to its west. When the aggressive neighbour decided to annex the tiny nation by force, another near neighbour to the south (with an appetite for oil) decided to turn a blind eye. But the southern neighbour had a long tradition of media freedom and so a bunch of intrepid news gatherers travelled north to the tiny nation to bear witness to these events.

The aggressive neighbour didn’t want any foreign witnesses to the invasion, so when it found five of the intrepid newsmen filming its cross-border incursion into a small town called Balibo, it had them killed and their bodies burnt to cinders.

This was rather awkward for the leaders of southern neighbour, but nevertheless they continued to turn a blind eye to the murder and mayhem going on to their north, secretly hoping that the world would forget about the tiny nation.

But the colleagues, friends and relations of the murdered newsmen couldn’t forget, and down through the decades the words ‘the Balibo Five’ became synonymous with a dirty little secret—a political cover-up—and a tiny nation of people who were still waiting and hoping for someone to bear witness to their story.


Queensland communications academic Alan McKee defines the public sphere as the virtual space ‘where each of us finds out what’s happening in our community, and what social, cultural and political issues are facing us … where we add our voices to the discussions… in the process of reaching a consensus or compromise about what should be done’.1 The term ‘public sphere’ encompasses more than just the news stories being reported in the media—the trends and products of popular culture influence the so-called ‘water-cooler’ topics too—but the media have long had a central role in forming our collective memory and defining the stories we tell each other in this huge public conversation.

Gurus of contemporary broadcasting use a simple image to describe how radio presenters should conceive of their role in these discussions, advising them to imagine they are chatting with their listeners around the kitchen table.

Over the past three decades, the Balibo Five have drifted in and out of Australian kitchen-table conversations. Unless you were personally connected to any of the central players in this story, chances are you would only hear about them when one of the friends or relatives of the five men gained media coverage for their latest plea for a full investigation into the newsmen’s deaths.

And there were understandable reasons why Australians of all political persuasions would be reluctant to spend too much time thinking and talking about the Balibo Five. Even if the exact details of the events of October 1975 remained unclear, enough information had been reported by interested journalists to indicate that, for reasons of political expedience and/or anticipated fiscal benefit, members of the Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating ministries had all been either active or complicit in covering up the murders of the five newsmen. Successive governments had tried to shape the official history—and thereby the dominant collective memory—of these events by framing the deaths as regrettable accidents amid distant and inevitable conflict. And we the Australian voters had let them get away with it.

Furthermore, any discussions about the Balibo Five led inevitably to consideration of the fate of the East Timorese people, following their nation’s forcible incorporation into Indonesia as its twenty-seventh province (a move whose legality was formally acknowledged only by Indonesia and Australia). Symbolically led by Timorese foreign-minister-in-exile Jose Ramos Horta traipsing the corridors of the United Nations in New York, small groups of Timorese ex-pats and international activists dedicated to the cause of their independence (including Greg Shackleton’s wife Shirley Shackleton) persisted in reminding us of the violence being perpetrated against our Second World War allies by their Indonesian colonisers.

In short, this was a story that provoked feelings of shame, and nothing sends a conversationalist scuttling away from the kitchen table faster than a curdling sense of shame. But the story kept bubbling up and, as it was told and retold, new details were added and new and at times contested layers of meaning were attached to the lives and deaths of the Balibo Five.

Australian journalist Jill Jolliffe was in East Timor in 1975 at the same time as the five newsmen, and declined an offer to join them on their trip to Balibo. She remained behind in the capital, Dili, and was one of the two journalists (the other was the ABC’s Tony Maniaty) who first reported the television newsmen missing.

Jolliffe’s early involvement led to a three-decade-long personal pursuit of the truth about the circumstances of their deaths. She has since filed countless stories about East Timor and the Balibo Five for print and broadcast media, and in 2001 she documented her findings in forensic detail in her book Cover-Up.2

Jill Jolliffe’s book also pays tribute to a sixth journalist from Australia whose story became inextricably—and fatally—linked to that of the five newsmen. By December 1975, AAP correspondent Roger East was the last remaining foreign journalist in East Timor and his final assignment was to try to find out exactly what had happened in Balibo. But Roger East was shot dead in Dili by Indonesian forces on 8 December, the day after their full-scale military invasion of the East Timorese capital began.

The author of Cover-Up is in no doubt about what she describes as the terrible cost for the Timorese of those six deaths: with ‘the elimination of all independent observers to its actions … the invading force was no longer subject to restraint of any kind’.3 Furthermore, she asserts, ‘the film (that the Balibo Five) had in their cameras could have changed the course of history’.4 For Jill Jolliffe, the story of the Balibo Five is a tale of moral delinquency: ‘Understanding what happened at Balibo is the key to understanding the complicity of successive Australian governments, Labor and Liberal, in the Indonesian military occupation of East Timor.’5

Tony Maniaty, the other Australian journalist who alerted his nation to the disappearance of the Balibo Five, agrees with Jolliffe that their story should be kept alive. These days Maniaty teaches journalism at the University of Technology Sydney, but in October 1975 he was working in Portuguese Timor for the ABC and met the Channel Seven crew on the road as they were heading west to Dili. He was fleeing back to the capital after the invading militias had shot at him and his ABC crew in Balibo, and tried to warn the newcomers of the dangers they would face in the border town.

At the Melbourne launch of his new book Shooting Balibo Tony Maniaty described how he thought the Indonesians would have responded to the Australian Government’s inaction over the five deaths: ‘They must have thought, how easy is this! Nobody’s watching, nobody cares.’

But Maniaty’s analysis of the impact of the five journalists’ deaths differs significantly from that of Jill Jolliffe. ‘People say that if they’d been able to get it to air, that film footage might have been able to stop the war against East Timor, but I don’t think so’, he told his audience. And when I asked for his answer to the rhetorical question he poses in the book—‘why the fate of a small group of journalists from a past generation matters in this one’—Maniaty’s views again diverged from Jolliffe’s: ‘Speaking as a teacher of journalism, it’s important that we go back to see what can be learnt from that tragedy. It’s an opportunity to talk to a new generation of journalists about what went wrong and what not to do. Because no story is worth a life.’

And he’s right, of course. No-one should have to die for the privilege of bearing witness to acts of injustice and inhumanity. And yet history is replete with examples of how these crazy-brave news reporters have had an impact—at times incremental, at times dramatic—on the course of events they have been covering.

There is now general consensus that without the startling Vietnam War footage gathered by cameramen such as Australian Neil Davis (whose work was celebrated in the 1980 film Frontline by another crazy-brave Australian, documentary-maker David Bradbury) and broadcast on the television sets of voting Australians and Americans, the war would have lasted longer than it did. And in East Timor, sixteen years after the events in Balibo, the actions of three courageous foreign news gatherers were to influence the course of the independence movement throughout the 1990s.

On 12 November 1991, two US journalists and a British cameraman were caught up in the massacre of around two hundred and fifty East Timorese mourners by Indonesian troops in the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili. Americans Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn were beaten by Indonesian soldiers, and Yorkshire Television cameraman Max Stahl caught the violent events at the cemetery on film. Stahl’s footage was later smuggled out of the country and, along with the eyewitness accounts of the two American journalists, broadcast around the world.

This irrefutable evidence of the Indonesian campaign of repression against the East Timorese not only galvanised pro-independence protests around the world, but it led to diplomatic reprisals against Indonesia by the Portuguese and US governments, and to increased debate in Indonesia about the ongoing annexation of East Timor. The widespread international media coverage of the joint 1996 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Jose Ramos Horta and Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo for their ‘sustained efforts to hinder the oppression of a small people’reinforced the growing feeling in Indonesia that East Timor was a problem requiring a new solution. The debate culminated in the 1998 decision by then Indonesian President Habibie to hold a referendum in 1999 on ‘special autonomy’ for East Timor, and a quarter-century after the withdrawal of their Portuguese colonisers, the East Timorese were finally able to vote for independence.

We will never know whether the stories contained in the final film footage of the Balibo Five might have ‘changed the course of history’. But like a classic Grimms fable without a happy ending, the story of their deaths has functioned as a morality tale in Australian public life. It has been a persistent reminder of how even the most apparently benign governments should never be trusted to tell ‘the whole truth’ about their motivations, actions and inactions when relations with other powerful nations are seen to be at stake—and of the vital role of a culture of investigative news-reporting in attempting to hold those governments to account.

As Jill Jolliffe documents so convincingly in Cover-Up, even after political pressure led two Australian foreign ministers (Gareth Evans in 1995 and Alexander Downer in 1998) to commission reports into the deaths of the Balibo Five,6 key questions remained unanswered about exactly who was responsible for ordering the five deaths, and what role the Australian Government and its intelligence services played in the events in East Timor during and after October 1975.

More recently, following the 2007 Coronial Inquiry into the death of Brian Peters, the NSW Coroner concluded that the men died ‘from wounds sustained when [they were] shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by members of the Indonesian Special Forces’ and recommended that criminal proceedings be commenced against the alleged Indonesian perpetrators.7 As yet, however, no such proceedings have been instituted, and Jill Jolliffe is calling for a new criminal investigation into the matter.

For those journalists who have followed the story, either actively in the case of Jolliffe and Maniaty or (in my case) from a distance, the actions of the Balibo Five have been a kind of professional moral measuring stick. How far would you go to get the story, if you were convinced that it should be told? Would you go as far as those five men did—or as far as Roger East, who lost his life in pursuit of the story of their deaths?

In Shooting Balibo, Tony Maniaty uses the term ‘survivor guilt’ to explain why he has been consumed by the events of October 1975 for more than thirty years. He told the audience at his Melbourne book launch that ‘no story is worth a life’, and yet he also describes his own decision to leave East Timor before the full-scale Indonesian invasion as a ‘strange failure’.8

Perhaps it is in part survivor guilt that has compelled journalists Jolliffe and Maniaty to keep asking questions about the fate of their dead colleagues over the past three decades. And the stories of these two journalists in particular have formed the basis of the new Australian feature film Balibo, released in August 2009.

Tony Maniaty claims to have first alerted filmmaker Robert Connolly to the cinematic potential of the events in Balibo when the two men met at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in 1993.9 Connolly produced a short film written by Maniaty at AFTRS, and went on to write, direct and/or produce a number of award-winning Australian feature films, including Romulus My Father, The Boys, The Bank and Three Dollars, before co-writing and directing Balibo. In 2008, at the invitation of Robert Connolly, Maniaty returned to East Timor for the first time since 1975 during the film shoot to relate his memories of those events to the Australian cast members.

Jill Jolliffe’s book Cover-Up is listed in the film’s credits as one the key sources for the Balibo screenplay. Her reconstructions of the Balibo Five’s deaths, based on the accounts of eyewitnesses whom she tracked down and interviewed over many years, are re-enacted in shocking detail in Connolly’s film, as is the brutal killing of Roger East in Dili several months later.

Co-executive producer of Balibo Anthony LaPaglia, who also plays Roger East in the film, has said that it was the core group of Australian writers, activists and surviving relatives who kept the Balibo story alive: ‘I asked them all the same question: Why would you devote your life to this? … There’s an old saying: There’s a special place in hell for those who witness atrocities and do nothing about it. And I don’t think they want to go there.’10

Robert Connolly (interviewed in this issue of Meanjin) has carefully structured the film’s narrative using the ‘Russian doll’ technique of a story-within-a-story-within-a-story. At the core is the re-enactment of what happened to the Balibo Five, as described to Roger East—whose own story is then related by a Timorese eyewitness to East’s death. The Timorese woman’s testimony opens and closes the story, and this plot device is a fitting acknowledgement of the fact that, while concerned Australians have played a part in seeking justice for this nation, and some have lost their loved ones—or their lives—in the process, it is the East Timorese people themselves who have suffered most for the goal of independence.

The filmmakers have incorporated in the movie some of the archival footage shot by the five newsmen, and restaged other filmed material, including the moment when Greg Shackleton daubs the Australian flag on the wall of the house in Balibo. They show the five adrenalin-charged young men doggedly pursuing that final footage which Jill Jolliffe believes could have changed the course of history—proof that Indonesian troops were pouring across the border between West and East Timor.

The film does not attempt to describe the subsequent political cover-up of what happened to the five newsmen, but by presenting their deaths as cold-blooded murders, it leaves viewers in no doubt about which version of history should be remembered when the Balibo Five are discussed around the kitchen tables of local film-goers. It remains to be seen whether the renewed interest in this story following the film’s release could see the wheels of justice begin to turn again for the families and friends of the dead men.

But if you stay to watch the credits roll at the end of the film, you will find those same five grainy black and white faces staring out at you from the big screen, as images of the actors are replaced with photos of the real players in this memorable Australian story: Malcolm Rennie, Brian Peters, Gary Cunningham, Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart.



1 Alan McKee, The Public Sphere: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2005, pp. 4, 5.

2 Jill Jolliffe, Cover-Up: The Inside Story of the Balibo Five, Scribe, Melbourne, 2001; revised edition under the title Balibo, Scribe, released in July 2009.

3 Jolliffe, Cover-Up, pp. 108, 109.

4 Jolliffe, Cover-Up, p. 3.

5 Jolliffe, Cover-Up, p. 6.

6 See, for example, Tom Sherman’s Second Report on the Deaths of Australian-Based Journalists in East Timor in 1975, January 1999.

7 Jolliffe, Balibo, pp. 351, 352.

8 Tony Maniaty, Shooting Balibo, Penguin, Melbourne, 2009, p. 23.

9 Maniaty, p. 7.

10 ‘Balibo film gives voice to Timor victims’, Australian, 15 July 2008.