Today, 16 October, marks the anniversary of the murder of the Balibo Five. They were Australian journalists reporting on the situation in East Timor. The Indonesian army had taken them and made them disappear.
I am East Timorese by marriage. It means that I have relatives living there. As you can imagine, the whole story of the Indonesian occupation in 1975 and these killings impacted on my family and became personal.
At around five a.m. on the day when Gary Cunningham, (27), Brian Peters, (24), Malcolm Rennie (29), Greg (Shackleton (29), and Tony Stewart (21) disappeared, I was milking the cows and listening to the Australian military station based in Darwin. I was a radio ham.
An Indonesian bulletin came over the air. A representative boasted that the five Australian “communist journalists” had been taught a lesson. News of the atrocity then disappeared. I found that a D notice had been put on the story.
For those who don’t know, a D Notice is an arrangement where the media and government agree to censor a story. It gets used in Australia much more often than most people suppose. It was certainly used with the Balibo Five.
Although they pretended otherwise, the government and news outlets had a good idea of what happened and chose to betray the journalists. They have never come clear on why they did it.
In time I learned what had happened from relatives who witnessed the killings from the place they were hiding nearby. How they had taught the lesson became crystal clear. They died horribly.
This is what I was told. Each of them was tied upside down on a wooden frame, they had their genitals cut off and stuffed in their mouths. Then they were tortured with sharp knives, receiving further horrific injuries, but calculated to ensure they died a slow death. This was shear barbarism, which would sicken any decent human being.
Witnesses to the horror were to afraid to speak out publicly, lest the same fate fell on them. They had good reason to be afraid. They are still afraid.
Presumably the Australian authorities knew about this all along. Still they refused to act. And the media joined in a conspiracy to hide the atrocity. The Commonwealth Police did not even bother to check it out with their Indonesian counterparts.
It was only the ongoing efforts of campaigners, including Greg Shackleton’s wife Shirley Shackleton, that eventually exposed much of the truth.
The commander of the Indonesian National Police (Kopassus) who allegidly ordered the killings progressed to a career in politics and remains there to this day.
There has never been a proper accounting for what went on.
This is behaviour that attacks to our right to know, makes the work of journalists much more dangerous and damages every notion of democracy. It spreads form one place to others.
On the 2 November 2017, which marked Unesco’s International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, it was reported that between 2006 and 2016, nine hundred and thirty journalists had been killed. Only a handful of cases have resulted in a conviction.
It is not getting any better. Journalists continue to face harassment and threats, face arbitrary detention, are tortured and disappear.
There are nine cases of Australian journalists being killed with impunity.