OPINION: Forty years ago on Friday, five young men met their deaths in a small corner of a foreign field. Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton, and Anthony Stewart were journalists employed by Channels 7 and 9. They were murdered in cold blood by the Indonesian military on the morning of October 16, 1975, at Balibo, in what was then Portuguese Timor and is today East Timor.
A dawn service is being held in their memory on Friday at the War Correspondents Memorial, in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial.
Why do their deaths matter now? The answer is that their fate holds poignant and instructive lessons for us today. At the time, the Indonesian military was conducting a covert military campaign in the border regions of East Timor. It publicly denied that it was involved in those operations, but privately gave details of the campaign to Australian diplomats. The strategy depended on the Indonesian military's involvement remaining hidden. If the journalists, who were in the border town of Balibo, had obtained film footage of the operations and conveyed it to the outside world, the covert military operation would have been exposed. Indonesian troops seized Balibo and killed the journalists soon after. They executed another Australian journalist, Roger East, six weeks later.
The Balibo Five: (Clockwise from top-left) Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie, Gary Cunningham, Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart.
Australian diplomats, now thoroughly compromised by the secret briefings, went along with the charade. They protected the Indonesian military from the consequences of its actions. They said their "immediate diplomatic problem and task" was "to do what we can to reduce the pressure on the Indonesians". Successive governments acted to shield the Indonesian military from criticism in Australia. Under prime minister Malcolm Fraser, Australia became the only Western country to give legal recognition to the Indonesian annexation. After a particularly shocking massacre in late 1991, then foreign minister Gareth Evans ordered the removal of more than 100 wooden crosses – placed as a sign of mourning – from the lawn in front of the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra. The Keating government ensured that Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas received the award of the Order of Australia in 1995. Not to be outdone, Tim Fischer, deputy prime minister in the Howard government, said that Indonesian president Suharto was "perhaps the world's greatest figure in the latter half of the 20th century".
Declassified Australian intelligence records show that the Indonesian high command was very alarmed about the international diplomatic consequences of killing the Balibo Five, and called a halt to its military operations for five weeks. But there was no protest from Australia. The Indonesian military took this as a "green light"; they realised they could treat the East Timorese as they wished. And that is what they did. The consequences for the East Timorese people were horrific. They died in large numbers, often in appalling ways.
University of California, Berkeley, demographer Sarah Staveteig estimates that 204,000 East Timorese died during the Indonesian occupation. With a pre-invasion population of 648,000, that's nearly one in three.
The great irony today is that, 40 years on, Indonesia has made a stunning transition to a robust democracy with a free press, while East Timor has recently passed laws muzzling journalists.
We remember the Balibo Five today not because journalists are any more special than other civilians, but because journalists play a crucial role in bringing information about human rights violations to the outside world. As the Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote: "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."
Nick Xenophon is an independent Senator for South Australia. Clinton Fernandes is an Associate Professor in International and Political Studies at UNSW Canberra.
This opinion piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.