Subject: JP: Balibo killings: Beginnings of impunity?

The Jakarta Post February 9, 2001


Balibo killings: Beginnings of impunity?

By Ati Nurbaiti

DILI (JP): Indonesia's New Order liked to change local street names with that of its generals; in East Timor, journalists also saw it fitting to commemorate colleagues killed in the territory.

A three-kilometer road from the Becora area in Dili to the old Mercado (market) now bears the name "Press Freedom Road".

The name change was made in December following the set up of the Association of Journalists of Timor Loro Sae (AJTL) to commemorate at least nine journalists who died on duty there.

The journalists were Australians Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart; Britons Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters; and New Zealander Gary Cunningham, all killed in Balibo on Oct. 16, 1975; Briton Roger East, in Dili on Dec. 7, 1975; Dutch Sander Thoenes; Timorese Bernandhino Gueterres; and Indonesian Agus Mulyawan in Lautem, all in September 1999.

The name change of the street is also a reminder of how difficult it has been to convey what has been happening in East Timor. Lack of access to information, except from official sources, and media self censorship, has contributed to much of the apathy toward the East Timor issue among Indonesians.

At the far end of the road, an engraved stone marks the spot where the body of Thoenes, a reporter from London's The Financial Times, was found, and further down the road, Gueterres was shot. Kompas journalist Kornelis Kewa Ama also sustained gunshot injuries in the nearby Kuluhun area when covering the violence in Dili in 1999.

The stone plaques and street signs were uncovered on Jan. 14 by, among others, Minister of Economic Affairs Mari Alkatiri, representing the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor; Hamish McDonald, a journalist from Australia who has long investigated the Balibo killings; and Lin Neumann of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Coordinating the ceremony was Virgilio Gueterres, the newly-elected chairman of AJTL.

The Balibo case is among the oldest of all these mysteries.

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In recent history, attention on the Balibo case was renewed when a former officer implicated in the killings, Capt. Yunus Yosfiah, was appointed minister of information by the then president, B.J. Habibie.

Calls for a reinvestigation into the case by CPJ were drowned in media praise of Yunus' breakthrough policies in enhancing press freedom.

Investigations resumed in the middle of last year under the UN civil police, and last week The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the UN investigators were seeking warrants of arrest for Yunus, Indonesian Christoforus Da Silva and East Timorese Domingos Bere.

The investigators, following seven months of work, recommended that the men be charged with crimes against humanity under the 1949 Geneva convention, the report said.

Yunus has again denied the allegations, saying he has no knowledge of the journalists and had never come into contact with them while he was in Balibo. He said, he had never received orders from his superiors to act against any foreign journalist.

Yunus has said that he was willing to face the UN investigators to "clarify" the issue.

Apart from Balibo, also under investigation are those implicated in the killings of Thoenes and freelancer Agus, along with his fellow passengers, nine nuns and priests. The cases are among those pursued by Indonesia's Attorney General's Office, following investigation by the government-sanctioned Commission for Inquiry of Human Rights Violations in East Timor.

The CPJ says that so far no one has been convicted in the killings of journalists in East Timor, or in most cases around the world.

Roger East's death in December 1975 is among the even lesser mentioned. His body, with hands tied, was found, along with some Chinese men, women and children, floating in the Dili water front shortly after he reported the entrance of Indonesian troops into Dili.

Long dismissed as a lost cause in the Indonesian media, the Balibo incident was brought to attention again in AJTL's first congress in Dili from Jan. 10 to Jan. 14.

What is the relevance of Balibo anyway to the Indonesian public?

Speaker Hamish McDonald told the congress that the Balibo incident is important, to East Timor and Indonesia, to understand "the beginnings of a pattern, a model of impunity, repeated in the following 25 years" since then.

"They got away with murder" in Balibo, McDonald said, referring to the Indonesian military. Subsequent larger scale operations were attempted by the military or its elements in East Timor, and other places in Indonesia, with the confidence that they would never get punished.

With Desmond Ball, a leading intelligence expert in Australia, McDonald wrote Deaths in Balibo, Lies in Canberra, published last year. In the introduction to the book they said they were "intrigued by the evidence of official lies and cover-ups," in which Indonesian and Australian government institutions and officials were implicated.

The incident, the authors say, "is a rare case where officials decided, in peace time, to sacrifice some of their fellow citizens to protect security and intelligence interests, and where ministers and officials knowingly conspired to mislead the public and parliament afterwards."

They describe cover ups in Australia's foreign affairs, defense and intelligence units.

"For over 20 years," the authors write, "Canberra did its best to suppress information of Indonesian culpability for the killings ... it kept up the fiction that pro-Indonesian Timorese partisans had carried out the Balibo attack."

They note that "even after (former military intelligence chief) Gen. Benny Moerdani admitted in 1993 that he had been centrally involved in the planning and direction of the covert campaign", and that in 1995 'Jakarta was well aware (before the attack) that there were journalists in Balibo'", this was downplayed by the government in Canberra.

With the fall of the Soeharto government, the authors stress there is no longer a need to cover up the Balibo case on the part of the Australian government.

Quoting Indonesian officials, the authors note Indonesia's attitude "is that such revelations are 'decidedly more of an embarrassment for Canberra than Jakarta,' and that they are 'Australia's problem, not Indonesia's.'"

The writer is a journalist of The Jakarta Post.

See also:

Australian Inquest into Balibo Journalists Killings in East Timor Shows Ongoing Need to Pursue Justice and Accountability (November 15, 2007)

 Text of NSW Coroner's Report on the Inquest into the Death of Brian Raymond Peters (PDF) (November 16, 2007)


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