On this date in 1975, five Australia-based journalists were slain in East Timor: executed (ahem, “allegedly”) by Indonesian security forces preparing to invade the former Portuguese colony.
The Balibo Five — Australians Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart; Britons Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie; and New Zealander Gary Cunningham — worked for two different Australian networks, but were together filing reports from the village of Balibo during the tense run-up to the December 1975 Indonesian invasion.
Just weeks before this date, the more Indonesian-friendly faction in the newly-independent statelet had been routed into Indonesian West Timor by the revolutionary Fretilin. Indonesian security forces were “covertly” probing into East Timor; to those on the ground, it was obvious that an attack was imminent.
Just three days after Greg Shackleton filed that broadcast, he was dead, along with all those colleagues who had been so moved by their Timorese hosts.
The Anglo journos had counted on their passports to protect them, and prominently advertised their Australian affiliations, believing that Indonesia’s western-backed dictatorship would not risk alienating its Cold War allies. By the official story — it’s still Indonesia’s official story — the Balibo Five nevertheless managed to all find their way into the crossfire when Indonesian troops overran Balibo on October 16.
But western sponsorship of this impending incursion went much deeper than the reporters imagined.
Much to the dismay of the men’s families, Canberra proved quite amenable to burying the matter rather than create a diplomatic incident. It even took a pass on the subsequent execution of another Australian who came to Timor Leste to investigate what happened to the Balibo Five — and was himself killed during Indonesia’s full-scale invasion.
Nevertheless, a considerable body of evidence has accumulated to the effect that the journalists’ death was the cold-blooded elimination of eyewitnesses who “could have testified that there was indeed an invasion by Indonesian troops.”
Australian filmmaker Robert Connolly last year fired new interest in the case by releasing Balibo, a dramatic feature film (shot on location in Balibo with Timorese extras) based on Jill Jolliffe’s book about the journalists.