Behind ‘Balibo’ And Its Banning
A young Jose Ramos-Horta, shown as the foreign minister of a newly independent East Timor, implores Roger East, an aging Australian journalist, to travel to his country to run a media agency. Five young journalists are shot and stabbed as they attempt to surrender to Indonesian soldiers who are mounting incursions over the border. Later, Dili is invaded by Indonesian forces and Timorese civilians are lined up and shot on the pier. East is executed along with them.
These are scenes from Robert Connolly’s film “Balibo,” which portrays the 1975 murder of five Australia-based journalists by the Indonesian military in the East Timorese border town of Balibo. Banned by censors here because of its “potential to reopen old wounds” and “questionable objectivity,” the people behind the film say it is a true story.
Gatot Purwanto, who was an Indonesian army lieutenant at the time and who witnessed the killings, recently told Tempo magazine that the journalists known as the Balibo Five were killed to keep the truth about Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor from the outside world. He also said that the killings were provoked by gunshots coming from the direction of the house that the journalists were in. But his version, clearly at odds with how things played out in “Balibo,” is not accepted by the Indonesian military.
Dr. Clinton Fernandes the film’s consulting historian, whose background includes working as the principle analyst for the Australian Intelligence Corps on East Timor in the 1990s described the movie as “very accurate.” He said that while any film is always a “collection of fragments,” this concept doesn’t detract from film’s veracity.
“It is a true story in the sense that it telescopes events that would have taken much longer,” he said in a phone interview last week.
“In one scene , you find Roger East watching parachutists come down and then he is captured and killed, all in the space of about ten minutes. In reality, we’re talking about something which took about a day and a half.”
Fernandes said that several film techniques were used to convey information succinctly. For example, in the scene where the Balibo Five are killed, the film depicts the same soldier who ordered the killings as the one who carried them out.
“We know for a fact that Dading Kalbuadi [the overall commander of the Indonesian forces in East Timor] was in [the town of] Batugade and he gave the order that anyone found there would have to be killed. Then Yunus Yosfiah and others went and killed the Balibo Five,” he said. “No movie can be expected to give the full version of the discussion, the assault, the killings. You’ve got to do it quickly, which is why what we have is Kalbuadi himself doing the killing.
“We are trying to show that it is a state crime, not a low-level rogue element. The film shows a senior officer participating in the killing because in real life, a senior officer ordered the killing.”
The film’s background is detailed on the “Balibo in depth” link on the balibo.com Web site. This link, curated by Fernandes, provides commentary on the film’s version of what happened versus the reality, and details the events upon which the scenes are based.
For example, the Web site explains the role of Juliana de Costa, a Timorese woman who we see at the beginning and end of the film giving her testimony on the events in East Timor. According to the Web site, she “is a composite character derived from the extensive work of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation.”
The commission, which aimed to document human rights violations during the occupation of East Timor, collected 7,824 statements from people across the country. According to the “Balibo” Web site, these testimonies detail “patterns of abuses, such as arbitrary detentions, torture, rape and massive property destruction.”
“Balibo” also touches on the complicity of Australia and the United States in the invasion, with scenes showing a newspaper photo of Gough Whitlam, Australia’s prime minister at the time, with then-President Suharto. In a later scene, a US-made helicopter shoots at East and Ramos-Horta, who is now the real life president of the country of Timor Leste.
The Web site provides evidence of the Whitlam government’s knowledge of events in Balibo, despite official acceptance of Indonesia’s version that the journalists were killed in cross-fire. A declassified Australian government document dated Oct. 22, 1975 is shown on the Web site, detailing the killing of five Australian journalists by invading forces.
“After the Balibo Five were killed,” Fernandes said, “the Indonesian military paused in their operations, waiting to see what kind of reaction there would be from the Australian government. When no reaction was forthcoming, it was assigned to the Indonesian military that they could treat the Timorese as they wished, which is what they did.”
It was only in 2007 that Australia launched a coroner’s inquest into the deaths of the Balibo Five. The inquest, which found that they had been murdered to prevent news of the invasion from reaching the outside world, was described by Fernandes as “a very robust process.”
“It was the first inquest that had the power to compel testimony of witnesses and to compel production of documents, including intelligence material. It had 66 witnesses, including two dozen Timorese who were bought in to testify,” he said.
“The material presented was very thorough, witnesses were cross-examined and there were numerous eye witnesses that were present at the Balibo square watching the murder of the Balibo Five.”
Fernandes said that after the journalists were killed, their bodies were redressed in military uniforms and the corpses posed behind weapons. “The aim of this was to pretend the Balibo Five were legitimate targets, but when people saw the photographs, they realized that the Fretilin [Timorese] soldiers had disabled the weapons and the photos showed the Balibo Five posed behind weapons that clearly could not have been used,” he said. “There is evidence, not only of the murder, but of the cover-up and of the attempt to portray them as legitimate targets.”
One question is why a film was made about Western journalists, when an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Timorese died as a result of the occupation.
“To me the Balibo Five is part of the whole occupation of East Timor. I don’t have any specific concern for the Balibo Five that’s different to my concern for war crimes committed in East Timor,” Fernandes said. “And my support for justice for the people of East Timor is only a component of my broader support for justice for the people of Indonesia.”
Both the film and the war crimes investigation into the deaths of the Balibo Five, launched by the Australian Federal Police in September, have been criticized for having the potential to cause diplomatic tension between Australia and Indonesia.
However, for Shirley Shackleton, the widow of Greg Shackleton, one of the journalists killed in Balibo, the pursuit of justice is what matters.
“Murder is murder. It doesn’t matter when it occurred. Every civilized person in the world requires justice,” Shackleton said in a phone interview last week. “Justice is not about vengeance. In a civilized society, justice is about accountability, and until the Indonesian people cooperate to get justice for the Balibo murders, they won’t get it for themselves.”
Fernandes emphasized that the issue of the murders was “not a dispute between Indonesia and Australia, it is a dispute between people in both those countries, between those who support justice and those who want impunity.”
He said he hoped the film would educate Indonesians about events in East Timor. “I know that Indonesian citizens had very little knowledge of what their military was doing in East Timor because the Indonesian military had always tried to control the narrative. They tried to control the narrative of the independence, after the 1965 killings. They tried to control the narrative of the Suharto years, of the occupation of Timor. For me, the ‘Balibo’ film is an attempt to shake that control of the narrative.”
The ban of the film has not stopped the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) from screening the film and a recent article published in the Jakarta Globe said pirated copies of “Balibo” are now widely available throughout the country.
An article on Tuesday quoted AJI founder, Andreas Harsono, saying the journalists would lodge a challenge at the Constitutional Court if the government took steps to enforce the ban.
Shackleton, however, was optimistic that Indonesia’s ban would only heighten interest. “I’m really pleased they did it,” she said. “The thing they have ensured is that everyone got interested in the film.”
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John M. Miller, National Coordinator
East Timor & Indonesia Action Network (ETAN)
PO Box 21873, Brooklyn, NY 11202-1873 USA
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