Uncovering the truth at Balibo

Reviewed by Jon Lamb

Balibo
Directed by Robert Connolly
Screenplay by David Williamson
Starring Anthony LaPaglia & Oscar Isaac
111 minutes

Balibo
By Jill Jolliffe
Scribe Publications, 396pp

The film Balibo is a powerful and compelling dramatisation of the murder of five Australian-based news reporters on October 16, 1975, by the Indonesian military at the East Timorese border town of Balibo. The film traces the search for the truth about what happened to the “Balibo Five” by an Australian-based freelance journalist, Roger East (played by Anthony LaPaglia), who was also murdered by Indonesian troops shortly after the full-scale invasion of East Timor on December 7, 1975.

Based upon the book of the same title by author and journalist Jill Jolliffe, the film has met critical acclaim following its premiere launch as the opening film at the Melbourne International Film Festival in July. At the closure of the Brisbane International Film Festival on August 9, the film was awarded two of the five jury prizes.

The five reporters —  Greg Shackleton, Malcolm Rennie, Tony Stewart, Brian Peters and Gary Cunningham —  arrived in East Timor as two separate news teams working for the Channel 7 and Channel 9 TV networks. At the time, the Indonesian military was attempting to destabilise the border region of East Timor (then a Portuguese colony undergoing a complicated decolonisation) with incursions involving Indonesian special operations and covert forces.

While the US and Australian governments were aware of this destabilisation campaign in East Timor through intelligence monitoring, both governments colluded in refusing to condemn the military attacks, which had been taking place since at least August 1975. From late 1974, the Australian government headed by Labor PM Gough Whitlam had made its support for the Indonesian annexation of East Timor clear to the General Suharto’s dictatorship. As the Indonesian military incursions became more brazen and deadly, Canberra attempted to ban all travel to East Timor, including that by the five reporters. Balibo faithfully captures the attempt by the journalists to reveal the truth about the activities of the Indonesian covert operations in East Timor’s border regions.

The film recreates certain events that, while not precise in their detail, do not diminish from the overall accuracy and portrayal of what happened to the slain journalists and the political cover-up surrounding it. For a more thorough and detailed account of this, Jolliffe’s book is indispensable. (Another good source of information is the website carrying material researched by the film’s consulting historian, Clinton Fernandes — The Film vs Reality.) Jolliffe’s meticulous work was critical in revealing the facts surrounding the deaths of the journalists and the subsequent campaign of lies and half-truths peddled by Canberra and Jakarta. Much of this research was drawn upon for various inquiries into the deaths of the Balibo Five, including the groundbreaking inquest conducted by the NSW coroner’s court into the death of Brian Peters in 2007.

On November 16, 2007, coroner Dorelle Pinch found: “Brian Raymond Peters, in the company of fellow journalists Gary James Cunningham, Malcom Harvie Rennie, Gregory John Shackleton and Anthony John Stewart, collectively known as ‘the Balibo Five’, died at Balibo in Timor-Leste on 16 October 1975 from wounds sustained when he was shot and/or stabbed by members of the Indonesian Special Forces, including Christoforous da Silva and Captain Yunus Yosfiah on the orders of Captain Yosfiah, to prevent him from revealing that Indonesian Special forces had participated in the attack on Balibo. There is strong circumstantial evidence that those orders emanated from the Head of the Indonesian Special Forces, Major-General Benny Murdani to Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, Special Forces Group Commander to Timor, and then to Captain Yosfiah.”

Kevin Rudd, who was about to be elected Australia’s prime minister, commented at the time: “This is a very disturbing conclusion by the coroner concerning the fate of the Balibo Five back in 1975. I believe this has to be taken to its logical conclusion. I believe those responsible should be held to account … I’ve been to Balibo, I’ve seen the fort, I’ve seen where these blokes lost their lives. You can’t just sweep this to one side.”  Since then the Rudd Labor government has done nothing to see the matter taken to its “logical conclusion”.

Justice has been a long time coming for the Balibo Five, Roger East and their relatives and friends, as it has been for the people of East Timor. For decades successive Australian governments have frustrated and derailed attempts to bring to account those responsible for the murders of the journalists and the numerous war crimes committed during the Indonesian occupation. The Balibo film and book are important steps towards achieving real justice. They are a must to see and read.