The Blood of Balibo


In October 1975, five journalists (including the Englishman Brian Peters) went to the border town of Balibo in East Timor to cover the impending Indonesian invasion of the fledgling country. All five were killed in the international tragedy that ensued.

More than 20 years later, in 1998, when Maureen Tolfree walked into a Bristol police station, she had a simple demand: ‘I need to know how my brother, Brian Peters, died in Balibo in East Timor in 1975,’ she said.

That was not the usual sort of query handled by local police. The desk sergeant shrugged, said the British Foreign Office controlled that sort of information, and politely showed Maureen the door.

Tolfree wore out pairs of shoes at the Foreign Office. ‘With any money left over from my catering business I took the £6 fare down to London every Tuesday and just stood outside the Department.’

‘As only the English can do, I was politely told to come back, and I was labelled a do-gooder with dubious Left-wing connections back in the colony,’ Tolfree laughed.

But with the help of Sydney activist lawyer, Rodney Lewis of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Maureen went to the Glebe Coroner’s Court in Sydney in 2000 to ask the same questions that she had in Bristol and London. But this time, the paperwork was ready and she had a new resolve to find out the truth.

Two years ago, the NSW Coroner John Abernathy accepted the ICJ argument that Peters had been a NSW resident (the only one among the five, the rest living in Melbourne) and so, his death came within the jurisdiction of the court. The inquest by a NSW court into the death of a British citizen in a foreign country is a legal milestone for Australia.

And the proceedings over the past few weeks have been a vindication of Tolfree’s hard road from Bristol to the Foreign Office and onto the Sydney court. One individual had had the courage to take on the English and Australian legal systems as well as the dark secrets of the Whitlam Government which was in power in Australia at the time of the Balibo killings.

Tolfree left for the UK last week, with a sense of completion. Her need to know what happened to her brother is having a profound effect in Sydney. It took seven years for the matter to get off the shelf and into court, but it is now sending ripples across East Timor, as well as in high levels of the Australian Labor Party and the Defence Department in Canberra.

Tolfree maintains that the previous inquiries into the deaths of the journalists (in 1996 and 200) were whitewashes. ‘I met with Tom Sherman [who was in charge of those inquiries]in one of my many shakeouts outside the Australian Embassy in London. I told him the terms of reference of the inquiries were too narrow so much evidence was suppressed,’ she said.

The evidence that has surfaced in the present inquiry about the murder of the journalists by Indonesian soldiers is harrowing. A circle of blood tightened around the journalists as present East Timorese Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta took their first video back to Dili, before warning them of the dangers of being in Balibo prior to the invasion.

Signals intercepted by Australia’s electronic spy agency, the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), showed that Balibo was a target of the Indonesian army and that there had been collusion between the Australian and Indonesian Governments.

As the inquest unfolded, Tolfree and even seasoned journalists and lawyers took a deep breath at the amount of evidence now coming out. There were sighs and tears in the court as the families of the dead journalists finally heard the story of Balibo in 1975.

The evidence showed that the Australian Government had concealed the fact that it had been advised of the newsmen’s summary execution and that it went on to conceal Indonesia’s responsibility for the atrocity.

The most ominous new evidence is the claim that the office of then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was given the text of an Indonesian military message on 16 October, 1975, within minutes of its being intercepted. This was the day of the journalists’ deaths.

In evidence, retired Australian Navy linguist Robin Dix, who was on duty at the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) base at Shoal Bay near Darwin on 16 October 1975, said a radio message was picked up that said: ‘Five Australian journalists have been killed and all their corpses have been incinerated or burnt to a crisp.’

Dix gave the Indonesian language text to the court, saying the word used for killing in the message, dibunuh, indicated deliberate intent. ‘I will never forget it,’ Dix said. ‘I remember it word for word.’

The intercept was not among those produced by DSD for the inquest according to Crown counsel Mark Tedeschi, QC. The inquest will pursue these questions when it resumes on 8 May.

‘My belief is that the journalists got caught up in the intrigue of the Whitlam and Indonesian Governments. They were wasted in the national interest,’ Tolfree said.

When Brian Peters decided to migrate to Australia at the age of 19, under the £20 pound scheme run by the ‘Big Brother’ movement, Maureen Tolfree signed the consent forms. By the time he died, aged 26, she had three children of her own and the two younger brothers to look after.

For Brian, a week’s stint as a cameraman with Channel Nine ended in a bloody circle on the East Timorese border. The burnt ashes of five journalists were buried in the small enclave of Balibo, and two governments ducked for cover.

‘We were made to suffer over 32 years because nobody in the Federal Government both Liberal and Labor had the guts to call for a proper inquiry,’ Tolfree said. ‘Throughout history, we need to ask the simple questions otherwise democracy and good governance go out the window.’

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.