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Almost 30 Years On, A Quest Continues

Almost 30 Years On, A Quest Continues

Families of the journalists killed in East Timor in 1975 have travelled to the island to open a memorial centre, but are still seeking answers, writes Jill Jolliffe.

DILI (The Age/Pacific Media Watch) Today's pilgrimage to Balibo by the families of the five television reporters killed in an Indonesian attack on the East Timorese border town 28 years ago is a turning point in their unfinished mourning and in their quest for the truth about the killings.

They were refused visas to attend the funeral of their loved ones in Jakarta in November 1975, and have never been certain that the remains buried in the presence of a handful of diplomats are really those of the dead journalists.

Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie were killed on October 16, 1975, as they filmed evidence that Indonesia was invading East Timor, then a Portuguese colony.

The 15 relatives have travelled from Australia and the United Kingdom for the opening of a memorial community centre for the people of Balibo. The centre is sponsored by the Victorian Government. It is located in the house where the Balibo Five, as they are known, slept in the days before their deaths, but is not the house in which they died. Dubbed the Balibo Flag House, it was here that they painted an Australian flag on an outside wall to signal their neutrality in the event of an attack.

East Timor's independence last year, after a 24-year struggle against Indonesian occupation, has made the memorial possible, as has Premier Steve Bracks's determination to correct the historical injustices suffered by the families, three of whom live in Melbourne.

Peters' sister Maureen Tolfree has travelled from Bristol, in Britain, to attend the ceremony. She was pleased to hear that Timorese President Xanana Gusmao and Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta would participate.

"I always thought that when the Timorese were free they would honour the journalists," she said. "Regarding closure, how do you define it? We still don't know where their bodies are. Until there's a full judicial inquiry and a calling of the witnesses, there's no closure."

Like the families of the Bali bomb victims, the relatives want to end their mourning, but there is a stark contrast between the two groups. The families of the Bali victims were treated with respect and sympathy by the Australian Government, which helped them cope with their grief and insisted on the rigorous Indonesian police investigation that led to the bombers' arrests and convictions.

Attitudes to the Balibo deaths have changed recently, but the families - who are British, New Zealander and Australian - recall their shabby treatment for many years by their respective governments. All three countries accepted the annexation of East Timor by the Soeharto regime, and the families' questions were inconvenient. They grieved unnoticed, and for years Shirley Shackleton (wife of Channel Seven reporter Greg), veteran campaigner for an inquiry, seemed a voice in the wilderness. Five of the men's parents have died since 1975.

"I don't begrudge the Bali families," said Paul Stewart, the brother of Channel Seven sound operator Tony, "but it's ironic that our memorial is occurring after the whole nation focused on the Bali bombing anniversary. We're another group that lost people on foreign soil, but this is only happening 28 years later."

Four inquiries commissioned by Australia since 1975 have merely reinforced the relatives' belief in a continued cover-up.

Frustration increased with the apparent shelving of a United Nations inquiry begun in 2000. Technically, it is still underway, as East Timorese Chief Prosecutor Longuinhos Monteiro confirmed to The Age, and the families want to know why it has been inactive since late 2001.

It represented the first possible neutral inquiry into the Balibo killings. After interviewing witnesses for several months, a police team, led by an Australian, submitted a legal brief asking the UN's prosecutor to indict three men for murder: General Yunus Yosfiah, who was commander of the special forces unit that attacked Balibo, intelligence agent Cristoforus da Silva and East Timorese militiaman Domingos Bere. Yunus was information minister in the 1998-99 Habibie government and, now retired, lives in Java.

The UN and East Timorese prosecutors have offered various reasons for the lack of action. They spoke this week of the changed mandate of the UN mission in East Timor since independence - it previously administered the territory but now assists the independent government. Reference was also made to the reduced budget of the UN-funded Serious Crimes Unit and its decision to concentrate on war crimes committed in 1999 as priority cases.

The prosecutors agreed that a lack of co-operation by the Indonesians was a key factor in the investigation's unofficial shelving. In late 2001, Jakarta told the UN prosecutor, Mohamad Othman, that it would not provide access to nine people sought for interview, including General Yunus.

But the prosecutors agreed that Indonesian hostility to prosecutions did not have to get in the way of progress in an investigation, as demonstrated by the case of Dutch journalist Sander Thoenes, who was murdered in Dili in 1999. His alleged killer, Lieutenant Camilo dos Santos, was indicted earlier this year, despite a hostile environment, and is now on Interpol's wanted list.



PACIFIC MEDIA WATCH is an independent, non-profit, non-government organisation comprising journalists, lawyers, editors and other media workers, dedicated to examining issues of ethics, accountability, censorship, media freedom and media ownership in the Pacific region. Launched in October 1996, it has links with the Journalism Program at the University of the South Pacific, Bushfire Media based in Sydney, Journalism Studies at the University of PNG (UPNG), the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ), Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, and Community Communications Online (c2o).

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