Subject: Woolcott blames the media for Balibo journos' deaths

Diplomat hits media for journos' deaths Caroline Overington | August 07, 2009

Article from: The Australian

THE Australian media bears more responsibility than the Australian government for the deaths of five journalists in Balibo in 1975, according to retired diplomat Richard Woolcott.

Mr Woolcott, who was Australia's ambassador to Indonesia at the time of the invasion of Timor, said the young reporters, employed by Channel Seven and Channel Nine, should not have been sent into such dangerous territory.

"The ABC left, and others left," Mr Woolcott said. "I think proprietors (of the TV stations) bear a heavy responsibility that they've never had to shoulder."

The role played by the Australian government at the time of the invasion of Timor is examined in a new film, Balibo, which opens this week. In the film, the reporters are shown painting a wonky Australian flag on the wall of a stone house, where they are sheltering.

Mr Woolcott, who is yet to see the film, said "they always show that flag. They never show the other side of the door, which had a Fretilin (communist) flag on it.

He said the Indonesians "would have regarded (the reporters) as combatants because of their close association with Fretilin".

Mr Woolcott said he assumed the film would be "partly fiction, but I don't want to buy into an argument about what the Australian government knew, or didn't know. All my cables have been made public. I have put it all down in my book, and I would not change a word of that chapter. It is simply a tragedy that these young and inexperienced people were there, and their lives were cut short."

Mr Woolcott said he would see the film "when it comes to Canberra". As reported in The Australian on Tuesday, he attended a question-and-answer session with lead actor Anthony LaPaglia in Melbourne, the day after opening night.

"What happened was, (Timorese President Jose) Ramos Horta, who is a personal friend of mine, he was going (to see the film) and he asked me whether I wanted to go and I said, no, but I did go and see him for a coffee the following morning," Mr Woolcott said.

"He said he was going to a Q and A about the movie, and I thought, well, I'll go, and sit quietly in the back and if anybody asks me a question, I'll answer it, but nobody did."

As to the death of the reporters, he said: "If you think back to 1975, there were no computers, no faxes, no emails, a fairly rudimentary telephone system.

"Any suggestion that the embassy knew that they were there is wrong. But it's 30-odd years on now, and I'm not sure there is a great deal to be gained from going over it. It's like what happened in Nazi Germany."


1. On 13th October 1975, Woolcott reported in a cable that he had been told by his Indonesian interlocutors that "The main thrust of the operation would begin on 15 October. It would be through Balibo and Maliana/Atsabe".

2. On 14th October, viewers across Australia watched Greg Shackleton's story stating that the Channel 7 team were on their way to the border.

3. On 15th October, Woolcott was once again told by the Indonesians that "Initially an Indonesian force of 800 will advance Batugade-Balibo-Maliana-Atsabe... It is of course clear that the presence of Indonesian forces of this order will become public. The Indonesians acknowledge this. The President's policy will be to deny any reports of the presence of Indonesian forces in Portuguese Timor."

4. On 16th October, the Indonesians attacked Balibo.

5. While there were no mobile phones in those days, Woolcott had immediate access to his Indonesian interlocutors face-to-face.

6. Here's an extract from the proceedings of the Coronial Inquest:

"Every single move by the Indonesians succeeded according to their plans. When informed of the precise Indonesian battle plans, no objection, public or private, was voiced. There were no news broadcasts showing Indonesian involvement in the attack on Balibo. Because senior Australian leaders had been compromised by advance warning of the attack, they were hardly in a position to disclose their true knowledge to the Australian people. When news of the deaths came out, not a single word in public or in private was uttered by the Australian Government or political leaders to suggest involvement or blame on the part of the Indonesians for the deaths of the journalists. Instead, Australian officials in public and in private persisted in what can only be called a bizarre charade of asking the Indonesian Military to use their good offices in seeking information from their Timorese militia allies about the deaths of the journalists... It is apparent that the Indonesian leaders engaged in a masterful power play worthy of an international chess grandmaster using Australian leaders and departmental officers as their pawns." 

Dr Clinton Fernandes Senior Lecturer School of Humanities and Social Sciences University of New South Wales @ ADFA Canberra ACT 2600 Ph: +61 431 248 426

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