Subject: Kiwi journo's death hushed up - author

Kiwi journo's death hushed up - author

By DAN EATON - The Press (NZ) | Thursday, 15 February 2007

New Zealand is being accused of helping hush up the murder of a Kiwi journalist during Indonesia's invasion of East Timor 31 years ago.

Gary Cunningham, who was a television cameraman, died, along with four other Australia-based journalists, when Indonesian troops swept through the Timorese border town of Balibo in October 1975.

At the time, the deaths were seen as an inconvenience by New Zealand officials and diplomats, who advised Labour prime minister Bill Rowling not to damage ties with Indonesia.

The allegations are made in a book based on declassified documents and come amid an inquest in Sydney that is throwing new light on the deaths.

Titled Negligent Neighbour: New Zealand's Complicity in the Invasion and Occupation of East Timor, the book, by Maire Leadbeater, is billed by its publisher as a "damning indictment of New Zealand's support for Indonesia's reign of terror in East Timor from 1975 to 1999".

Defence Minister Phil Goff spoke at its launch in Parliament yesterday, saying he did not agree with all of its conclusions.

"However, we do agree on the unacceptable failure of Western countries, including our own, to acknowledge and speak out about the invasion of East Timor in 1975 and subsequent oppression," he said.

"I applaud the book as a product of thorough research and hard work."

He made no mention of the allegations about Cunningham.

The Sydney inquest into the death of one of the Australian journalists is Australia's first open and completely independent investigation into the killings.

An East Timorese man wept in the witness box last week as he told of seeing the bodies of the five newsmen, including Cunningham, lying in pools of blood.

The evidence presented to the coronial inquiry supports what many have long suspected ­ that Indonesian troops murdered the men. Official reports over the years have, however, maintained the five were killed in crossfire with local militia members.

Leadbeater, who is sister of Green MP Keith Locke, told The Press that the Labour Government of the time saw the dead journalists as a public relations problem.

"What it mainly reveals as far as Gary Cunningham is concerned is that the Government officials at the time basically tried to hide behind the coat-tails of Australia," she said.

"Their argument was that because Gary Cunningham was working for an Australian television network and had been living in Australia and some of his family were living in Australia, we didn't have to worry about it."

The book says officials told Rowling in 1976 there was no "necessity for New Zealand to become involved in the dispute" over the deaths.

Documents obtained by Leadbeater quote officials saying "there would seem to be no clear-cut case against Indonesia for any specific violation of international law".

She wrote there was no doubt Australia worked to help Indonesia cover up the murders and that New Zealand played down the killings.

Leadbeater wrote that when Australian diplomats confided their concerns to their New Zealand colleagues, the New Zealanders did not speak about the journalists' families or express fears for the East Timorese. "They were worried about the impact on the bilateral relationship of the cumulative effects of `these irritants'."

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