Directed by Robert Connolly, In cinemas now
Balibo, the film about six Australian-based journalists murdered by Indonesian troops as they invaded East Timor in October 1975, has been canned by the renowned investigative journalist, John Pilger.
“The ‘true story’ is largely fictitious…reminiscent of the genre of Vietnam movies, such as The Deer Hunter, which artistically airbrushed the truth of the atrocious war from popular history.”
John Pilger has enormous credentials on East Timor, but on Balibo, I have to disagree with his assessment.
For more than 33 years the official Indonesian explanation was that the journalists were killed in crossfire. Successive Australian governments never challenged this version of events despite the relentless campaigning by the journalists’ relatives and evidence to the contrary.
“To this day, the one phone call my mother’s had from the Government came a couple of weeks after it all happened when someone from the embassy in Jakarta called and asked ‘where should we send the bill for the coffin?’” said a bitter Paul Stewart, the brother of slain journalist Tony Stewart, in July this year.
In 2000, Maureen Tolfree, the sister of murdered journalist Brian Peters, flew all the way from the UK to lodge a formal complaint with the NSW police about the lack of a coronial inquiry. The NSW Coroner’s Court finally agreed to an inquest in 2004, which didn’t begin until February 2007.
But evidence soon emerged that Australian authorities knew as early as October 16, 1975 that the journalists had been murdered. An Indonesian radio message had been intercepted that read, “As directed or in accordance with your instructions, five journalists have been located and shot.”
The evidence was indisputable and in 2007 Magistrate Dorelle Pinch found:
“They were not armed; they were dressed in civilian clothes; all of them at one time or another had their hands raised in the universally recognised gesture of surrender; they were not killed in the heat of battle; they were killed deliberately on orders given by the field commander, Captain Yunus Yosfiah.”
The reason for this murder, she found, was to conceal the truth about Indonesia’s attack on the border town of Balibo.
Balibo the film doesn’t repeat the official lie that they died in crossfire, but depicts the journalists being murdered in cold blood.
What then is Pilger’s complaint? He argues much of the detail written into the original screenplay, which clearly implicated the Australian government in the cover-up, such as the radio intercepts, was omitted. Also omitted were the devastating effects the cover-up had on the relatives of the journalists, such as the “scandalous decision to have the journalists’ ashes buried in Jakarta” to prevent “public outrage being directed at the West’s client in Jakarta”.
Pilger has a point about the omissions. Australia knew the invasion was happening and that Indonesia would come through Balibo, but failed to warn the journalists. But worse, Australia actually encouraged Indonesia to invade pledging not to interfere.
East Timor’s annexation was supported by successive Australia governments over the next 24 years. Indonesia’s military elite were trained in Australia, UN resolutions calling for withdrawal were ignored, while Australia eventually gave recognition to the annexation.
Australia signed a treaty with Indonesia to divide the oil under the Timor Sea and even after the fall of Suharto, the Howard government was working behind the scenes trying to prevent an independence referendum from happening. It was only after this failed and Indonesian’s brutal rule became public that the Australian government reluctantly stepped in, but then as the new overlord.
While there is plenty of damning detail omitted from Balibo, Pilger is wrong to put the film in the same league as The Deer Hunter.
Australia’s support for invasion and complicity in the murders is implied, and unlike The Deer Hunter’s treatment of the Vietnamese people, Balibo is sympathetic to the plight of the East Timorese who lost almost a third of their population to the occupation.
While the suffering of the murdered journalists’ relatives isn’t portrayed, they nonetheless have welcomed its release. Paul Stewart worked as a consultant on the film, while Maureen Tolfree told a packed audience at its premiere, “I think it will bring to the Australian public what’s gone on”.
She is right; Balibo shins a spotlight on the duplicitous relationship between the Australian and Indonesian governments that continues to this day.
By Mark Gillespie