Who's Watching Whom?


I was at a rally in support of West Papuan refugees earlier this year, listening to the speakers and enjoying the almost festive atmosphere, when I noticed three men at a nearby café. They were keenly observing the small but enthusiastic gathering in front of them. This would not have been unusual, given the rally’s central location, but something about them seemed odd.

One of the men then began filming the speakers and the crowd, including me, in a long right-to-left pan. He made no effort to hide what he was doing. Many West Papuans granted refugee visas in the late-1980s were present at the rally.

I was somewhat angered by the invasion of privacy, so began taking pictures of the men with my own camera. They quickly stopped filming. Others had also noticed them and the words ‘Indonesian intelligence people’ were whispered among the crowd. To make a point, someone took a picture of me kneeling near the three men pointing at them with a jovial smile naïve and mockingly arrogant.

It all seemed funny to me at the time.

It wasn’t until later that I realised my rights as an Australian citizen to protest without fear of intimidation had been infringed upon. I wrote a letter to the Attorney-General outlining my concerns, accompanied by pictures and a statutory declaration. I assumed such an occurrence would be investigated by ASIO, given the serious issue of possible foreign interference on Australian soil.

Soon after, I was contacted by ASIO and invited to a meeting to discuss the rally and my complaint. Given my desire to get to the bottom of this matter, and believing that they too shared the same motivations, I went along.

The investigators who interviewed me asked questions regarding the incident. None of the answers I gave provided new information, as it was all contained in my letter and statutory declaration. Then I was asked questions about West Papua. For example, whether I thought that domestic support in Australia could grow to the levels experienced during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, and what my connections were with the movement. They were also interested in getting more evidence of filming at rallies by possible foreign agents.

Nothing at the meeting confirmed anything regarding my complaint and I left a bit mystified.

Only a short time later, it was announced in Indonesia that a list had been compiled, with the assistance of Indonesian intelligence (BIN), of Australians who allegedly supported Papuan separatism.

The alleged spooks in question

Invited to attend a second meeting with ASIO, I felt certain that I would, this time, receive the answers I wanted and hear what action my government would now take. Instead, apart from one or two comments about my original complaint, I was asked other questions. These questions related to what I knew about possible Indonesian militia activities in West Papua, where I got my information from, who I knew, etc.

Apart from a vague confirmation that foreign agents commonly filmed at rallies during East Timor’s resistance, I received no definite answers. What were they investigating? When I indicated that I talked to people to discuss foreign affairs for intellectual curiosity, one of the two ASIO investigators uttered something curious. It was along the lines of ‘people seem comfortable talking to you.’

I pondered what had transpired and gradually felt that my sincerity in answering their questions was easily exploitable.

I composed another letter to the Attorney-General outlining my new concerns. I asked:

  • Have the Australian authorities now identified these three men?
  • Have these three men now been asked to leave the country?
  • Have authorities ascertained the likely purpose of their presence and why it was necessary for them to film those at the rally?
  • Have these three men been involved in any other such incidents in any other parts of our country? Is the Attorney-General aware of any other such activities in Australia?
  • Were the men ‘attachés’ from the Indonesian Embassy?

The letter was again passed on to the same investigators, who contacted me. They indicated that there had been a misunderstanding, apparently on my part, and wished to meet again. I asked if there was any particular reason to not just discuss it by phone. Only meeting in person would seemingly suffice. Later, I indicated that I was not going to meet them, as I had nothing to add to my original complaint. Everything I wanted clarified was in my second letter to the Attorney-General and I would prefer to have such questions answered in writing.

I’ve not been contacted again and I have certainly received no answers. The original incident occurred in January and I’ve no doubt that I, and many others, have been filmed for surveillance purposes since.

I remain unconvinced about the motivations of the investigators who interviewed me. Were they interested because my rights as an Australian citizen had been infringed upon, or were they seeking more information about how the issue of West Papua could negatively impact on the important bilateral relationship between Australia and Indonesia?

In light of the new Australia-Indonesia security treaty, it is a question that needs to be asked by human rights groups and NGOs around the country.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.