By Jon Stephenson
Robert Connolly says Balibo – his movie about the murder in East Timor 35 years ago of six Australian-based journalists – is a stark reminder of the risks faced by many correspondents around the world on a daily basis.
“The figures are just terrible,” says Connolly, quoting numbers released by theInternational News Safety Institute (INSI). “Over a hundred journalists were killed last year.”
The movie is also a reminder for journalists and their bosses of the need to prepare and support correspondents sent on difficult or dangerous overseas assignments, as well as of the importance of holding governments to account for attacks on the press.
Balibo is the story of five journalists in their 20s – Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart and Gary Cunningham from Australia’s Channel Seven; Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters from Channel Nine – and of freelance reporter Roger East, 50, who was murdered after travelling to Timor to investigate their deaths. It is based on the book Cover-Up (republished as Balibo), by Jill Jolliffe.
The “Balibo Five” were killed in the town of that name in what was previously Portugese Timor on 16 October, 1975 during an incursion by Indonesian special forces. The official line from the military was that the men were hit by crossfire.
But in 2007 a New South Wales coroner found the men “were shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle” to prevent them from revealing Indonesia’s invasion – a view backed by a recent admission from an Indonesian special forces soldier who took part in the Balibo raid.
When the invasion-proper began on 7 December, East was captured in Dili by Indonesian soldiers and executed in the Timorese capital the following day.
“I’ve always loved films about war correspondents,” says Connolly, in Auckland to promote the film. “We have such a voracious appetite for media coverage, but we’re often naively unaware of the risks people go to to get these stories.”
What drove the award-winning Australian director to make Balibo is what he describes as his country’s complicity not only in Indonesia’s “incorporation” of East Timor but in the deaths of the Balibo Five and the subsequent cover-up.
“It’s an awful blot on my nation’s history,” he says, “because history’s now shown that our prime minister at the time, [Gough] Whitlam, had met with [Indonesia’s president] Suharto, had approved the invasion. We knew it was going to happen, we were happy with it happening. We signed off on it.”
“I am in favour of incorporation,” Whitlam told Suharto in 1974, according to secret cables declassified in 2000. “I want incorporation, but I do not want this done in a way which will create argument in Australia which would make people more critical of Indonesia.”
Connolly claims reporting of the invasion might have generated such an argument and the Indonesians, aware press coverage in Vietnam had helped stop that war, decided the Balibo Five must be eliminated.
“These journalists were killed because they were journalists, and to cover the truth.”
The Australian government, which later signed an agreement with Indonesia dividing oil and gas resources in Timorese waters, knew the journalists were in danger, “and what did they do? They did nothing.”
Muted NZ response
He says a degree of complacency, if not complicity, extends to New Zealand, where the official response to the death of Cunningham, a NZ citizen, was as muted as the government’s response to the invasion of East Timor and its 24-year occupation.
“I was initially just really taken by the fact that five young journalists could be murdered, and that it really hadn’t been prosecuted to the nth degree by the Australian and New Zealand governments.”
That may be changing in Australia, at least. As a result of the 2007 coronial inquiry, the Australian Federal Police last year launched a war crimes investigation.
However, New Zealand’s foreign minister Murray McCully has ruled out any inquiry here. He says he has raised the issue of the Balibo Five with Indonesia, but has not asked for an admission or apology for Cunningham’s death.
If Indonesian or Australian officials were complicit in, or complacent about, the deaths of the Balibo journalists, the employers that sent them to Timor must also share some responsibility. Of the five men at Balibo, only one – cameraman Gary Cunningham – had any experience reporting conflict.
As Connolly makes clear in the film, the five were certainly committed and talented journalists. But what also seems clear is that their determination to “get the story” – despite warnings from Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) journalist Tony Maniaty and the locals – led them to make some poor decisions.
INSI president and Reuters boss Chris Cramer told a media seminar in Wellington last year that sending reporters to conflict zones without training or experience was unacceptable. This principle is part of INSI’s safety code, which has been adopted by leading media organisations worldwide.
No unreasonable risks
The code also states that unreasonable risks should never be taken in pursuit of a story, no matter how important that story may be.
“I think certainly in the training of journalists, much has been learnt from the experience and the tragic deaths of the Balibo Five about the decisions that should be made in these situations,” Connolly argues.
Indeed, the deaths were among key events that led to the formation of groups like INSI and the development of guidelines designed to reduce the risks of reporting in hostile environments.
Last year, the ABC and Channels 7 and 9 were among major news organisations that adopted the Australian News Media Safety Code.
Echoing INSI’s philosophy, the first of the code’s 16 principles states: The preservation of life and the management of safety are paramount. News organisations should make clear to news personnel that unwarranted risks in the pursuit of a story are unacceptable and strongly discouraged. News organisations should consider safety first before competitive advantage.
That competition was a major factor in the deaths of the Channel 7 and Channel 9 teams is beyond doubt, as Maniaty relates in Shooting Balibo. Heading to Timor, Channel 7 team leader Shackleton “knew our ABC crew was in the territory; no sooner had he reached Dili than he found we were already in Balibo, and the speed of the chase kicked in.
“Being scooped by the ABC was not an option – he would have had not only the Seven network to answer for that, but also himself.”
‘Against all advice’
The Channel 7 team pushed on to Balibo “against all advice,” and, encountering the ABC withdrawing, “Shackleton could barely conceal his enthusiasm, nor believe his apparent luck – as a reporter, he would have Balibo to himself.”
Connolly is uncertain whether the existence in 1975 of an industry code that placed safety before competition would have made any difference to what transpired at Balibo. It may have lessened the pressure from bosses back home, but as Maniaty suggests – and most correspondents will admit – the self-imposed pressure of ego and ambition can be every bit as powerful.
Connolly admires Shackleton’s drive, but agrees he was a very ambitious reporter.
In Maniaty’s opinion, having seen off the ABC crew, “a sense of ownership of the story was taking firm hold, and Shackleton was never, from that point onwards, going to relinquish it.” He says the arrival of the Channel Nine team two days “would have annoyed Shackleton intensely and steeled his determination to stay, no matter what.”
One thing that might make a difference in a similar situation today is the high-tech communication gear carried by news teams. A satellite phone or even a standard mobile makes it possible for journalists on the ground to get advice from home, or for news bosses to order their staff to withdraw.
But high-tech communications also make it possible for inexperienced or unscrupulous bosses to encourage the pursuit of a story when they lack the wisdom or desire to pull out their staff.
Arguably, the welfare of journalists on assignment in conflict zones is best advanced by changes in the culture of news reporting – something the Australian media safety code hopes to encourage.
It is an area where big steps have been taken in the years since Maniaty, having come under fire, made the brave decision to withdraw from Timor and was reprimanded by the ABC for doing so. There was, says Connolly, “no counselling, no debriefing – no sensitivity to the trauma issues.”
In Balibo, actor Anthony LaPaglia, who plays the part of Roger East, encounters a shaken Maniaty and says simply: “Sometimes it helps to talk about it.” It seems an all-too-common example of a journalist stepping in where their colleague has been abandoned by those with a duty of care.
The ABC has worked with the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma to address these issues. A commitment to journalists’ mental as well as physical and financial health (such as hostile environment training and life insurance) is part of the Australian code.
“News organisations should provide free access to confidential counselling for news personnel involved in coverage of traumatic events and for their immediate families,” principle 11 stipulates. “They should train personnel and managers in recognition of post traumatic stress.”
While things may be looking up for some journalists, there is much to be done. In an era of cutbacks and closures of foreign bureaus, news organisations are increasingly dependent on non-salaried staff, and as Connolly points out, these people are often overlooked.
The INSI’s Chris Cramer is among those determined to ensure that the freelancers and local staff who are putting themselves on the line in war zones have the same access to training, support, insurance and counselling as their colleagues.
So, given the increase in awareness of journalists health and safety needs, could the Balibo incident still happen today? It could, says Connolly, and it does – for the simple reason that the best training, equipment and media culture in the world cannot prevent the targeting of media by criminals, militias, or governments.
The Israeli reporter Amira Hass has argued that the essence of journalism is “to monitor power, and the centres of power” – and, as in Balibo, speaking truth to power often generates a lethal response. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 68 journalists in the Philippines have been killed because of their work since 1992 – 12 of them in one incident in November. (The International Federation of Journalists cites 32 media deaths in this massacre).
In Iraq, the numbers are even worse: 141 have been killed since the US-led invasion in 2003 – 213 if the deaths of support staff (51) and murders where a motive was not confirmed (21) are included.
Things in Russia are also bleak. Connolly repeats the words of the Novaya Gazeta editor when accepting a media award in Helsinki.
“What I hope for tomorrow is that I can publish my newspaper and none of my journalists are murdered for what they report.” Says Connolly: “Since 2002, five of his journalists have been killed – politically killed.”
He says what needs changing even more than media training or newsroom culture is the culture of killing journalists with impunity – a trend that has been entrenched since Roger East and the Balibo Five were murdered three-and-a-half decades ago.
“I think it is happening now,” says Connolly, pointing to the US military’s targeting of Al Jazeera in both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. “I think governments are complicit in it – whether it’s in their silence, whether it’s in their action. I think it’s a real issue.”
Jon Stephenson is a freelance foreign correspondent who has reported on conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian Territories, and in Lebanon.
Balibo is directed by Robert Connolly, and stars Anthony LaPaglia as Roger East and Oscar Isaac as Jose Ramos-Horta. Greg Shackleton is played by Damon Gameau, Gary Cunningham by Gyton Grantley, and Tony Steward by Mark Leonard Winter. Malcolm Rennie is played by Nathan Phillips, and Brian Peters by Thomas Wright.
Shooting Balibo: Blood and Memory in East Timor, by Tony Maniaty (Viking, 2009).
The Last Reporter, a book on the life and death of Roger East, by award-winning ABC Four Corners journalist Peter Cronau, will be published this year by ABC Books.