Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 23:07 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 23:07 | SYDNEY

Balibo: In defence of Foreign Affairs

1 September 2009 10:06

In 1975, Lance Joseph was the Assistant Secretary in charge of the Southeast Asia branch of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The release of Robert Connolly’s new film Balibo has inevitably returned the spotlight to events surrounding the deaths of five Australian-based journalists at that border outpost in East Timor on 16 October 1975.

Of the various claims to be vented in the renewed media commentary, that which stung most is the assertion that the Department of Foreign Affairs, as an act of calculated policy, deliberately withheld any warning of the imminent danger in order not to reveal Australia’s intimate knowledge of Indonesia’s plans. That is simply wrong.

There was no sacrifice of lives to protect security and intelligence interests. There was not even any consciousness that the five journalists were in Balibo. What was known was that the Channel 7 team had left for East Timor on 10 October, and what subsequently became known was that the Channel 9 team followed on 12 October. But no one in Foreign Affairs was tuned in to their subsequent onward movements.

Only afterward, when news of the attack at Balibo and reports of deaths began to filter through did it become apparent that these deaths were likely to have included Australian journalists. Only then did the matter of protecting intelligence become an issue — that was for good national security reasons, but, importantly, only after the fact. Had there been any opportunity to act pre-emptively to get the journalists out of there, one can be assured that the required action would have been taken.

As is confirmed in the volume of Timor documents released by DFAT in 2000, Australia had forewarning of the intended border raids, including on Balibo. But it is important to recall the chronology. The first advice of the intended attacks was received by policy officers in Canberra on the morning of 14 October. The report, from our Embassy in Jakarta, was that the thrust of the operation would begin on 15 October through Balibo and Maliana/Atsabe. Otherwise it was vague about the details.

The report was from a non-official, albeit well informed, source. Our Ambassador in Jakarta was able to confirm the intended action at more senior and official level late evening on 15 October, with his reporting the same on 16 October. That was the day of the attack, which was probably already unfolding as the advice from Jakarta was being weighed in Canberra.

Officials were not simply sitting on their hands. As the body of documents also reveals, recommendations were being drawn up for the Foreign Minister to reiterate our serious concerns in Jakarta about the imminent attack and for planning the evacuation of Australians in advance of the expected stepped-up fighting.

All too late for the five journalists, sadly. But the processes, and planning, for getting our people out of harm's way were certainly underway. There had been a precedent six weeks earlier, during the civil war phase, when the Department had arranged an emergency evacuation for Australians and other foreigners willing to be airlifted out.

Attention has been invited to a Channel 7 broadcast, said to have been aired on 14 October 1975, which, it is said, showed that the five journalists were on their way to the border. That may or may not be so. My own recollection is that the newscast depicting Greg Shackleton painting the Australian flag on the abandoned shelter at Balibo came later, in footage shot on 15 October by a departing Portuguese television team that was later handed over in Darwin.

But it might have been broadcast earlier (Ramos Horta was reported to have carried some film shot by the television crews back to Dili) though if so it failed to capture the attention of those dealing with the issue in Canberra. Remember too that Australia had no consular or other official presence in Timor. Nor were there cell phones or other means of ready communication even, as I recall, between the television crews in the field and their principals in Australia.

Fretilin itself had not then yet established any kind of administrative control and in any case no radio communication existed between Dili and the few Fretilin forces left at Balibo. Still, had Foreign Affairs known of the journalists’ presence, our Embassy could at least have been tasked to let its Indonesian interlocutors know, and to urge that proper protection be assured in any military action likely to be taken in the area.

Finally, some context of what was happening on the ground in Timor is worth recalling. The territory was experiencing a nascent civil war. Governor Pires had responded by removing himself with flag to Arturo Island. The Portuguese officers controlling the single Timorese regiment went with him, leaving the regiment in the command of its Timorese NCOs and its one commissioned Timorese officer, who also happened to be the brother of the President of Fretilin.

That was why the army with its weapons went over to Fretilin and why Fretilin was then able quickly to establish its supremacy over the other Timorese groups. The opposition had not simply given up, however, but had taken itself across the border to seek Indonesian support and succour.

For analysts and policy people in Canberra this meant that what began as concern for the internal conflict was rapidly replaced by firming assessments that Indonesian forces were about to intervene, posing risks for any resident or visiting Australians left in their path.

This was the background under which an initial ban on flights to East Timor that had been lifted in mid-September was reimposed and only lifted again on 10 October — this in the face of considerable clamour from journalists anxious to cover the unfolding conflict. It was 10 October 1975, of course, early morning that day, that the Channel 7 team embarked on its fatal journey into East Timor.

These were the circumstances in which all five journalists, having left for East Timor, found themselves alone in Balibo on 16 October when they tragically met their deaths.

Photo courtesy of the Balibo official film website.