Sunday 10 Oct 2021 | 05:22 | SYDNEY
Sunday 10 Oct 2021 | 05:22 | SYDNEY

Bearing witness at Balibo


Graeme Dobell

This post is part of the Balibo debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

17 September 2009 09:38

This post is part of the Balibo debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

The pragmatic realists have spent several decades trying to bury the Australian journalists murdered by Indonesian troops in East Timor. The most brutal and explicit example of this was offered nearly three decades ago by one of the great Australian diplomats of his generation, Sir Keith Shann. The Australian journalists who died in Timor, he said, had 'asked for it and they got it.'

This is the less than glorious company Stephen Grenville has joined with his perspective on the new police investigation into the Balibo Five. Stephen's milder version of the Shann thesis is that the Balibo Five were 'foolhardy in the extreme' to be trying to film a covert Indonesian invasion. The journalists, he says, 'intentionally put themselves into mortal danger' and their editors were even 'more culpable'.

The pragmatic realist argument has always been that the need for good relations with Indonesia trumps moral or legal concerns such as the murder of Australian journalists. To buttress this argument, the Balibo Five have to be traduced as fools who went looking for the fate that befell them. This is to misrepresent or misunderstand what journalists do in the midst of conflict.

As non-combatants, media workers do what few other sensible civilian would do — they actually head toward the conflict. While not acting like other civilians, though, journalists are clearly protected by the Geneva Conventions. And their work is a powerful support for the Conventions. Telling the truth about conflict endangers journalists. It can expose uncomfortable and powerful truths that cause headaches for politicians and diplomats. This is more than telling truth to power. It involves holding power to account.

If the film shot by the Balibo Five had gone to air, it would have dramatised the reality of Indonesia's secret invasion. Australian politicians and diplomats knew all about the invasion, even before it happened, because the Australian embassy in Jakarta had been fully briefed on Indonesian military's plans as they were  developed. 

The Balibo Five broke one of the simple rules of reporting conflict. The line of control or the path of the advance is the most dangerous place to be. Unfortunately, that is usually where the main story is happening. Being there was a judgement call. They paid the highest price for that judgement. They were not foolhardy. They did not ask for it.

Photo by Flickr user drp, used under a Creative Commons license.