Justice; that is the one thing the families of the slain British journalists, who make up two of the ‘Balibo Five’, want.
Thirty-four years ago, as the Indonesian army amassed on the border of East Timor, British reporter Malcolm Rennie and cameraman Brian Peters, along with Australian TV reporter Greg Shackleton, soundman Tony Stewart, and New Zealand cameraman Gary Cunningham, arrived in the village of Balibo to investigate rumours of an impending invasion.
On the morning of 16 October 1975 – prior to Indonesia’s full-scale attack – Indonesian Special Forces assaulted Balibo and killed the ‘Balibo Five’.
The journalists had seemingly believed that, as Australia-based reporters, the Indonesians would not target them. Greg Shackleton had even painted an Australian flag onto the building they were staying in, to make their identity clear. However, eye-witnesses say the journalists were singled out and executed in cold blood, to stop their reporting on the incursion.
For years, their families were told the men had been killed in mortar fire.
Despite gaining a coronial inquest for Brian Peters in an Australian court in 2007, which revealed the horrific details surrounding the journalists’ deaths and declared the murders as a war crime, Peters’ sister Maureen Tolfree still does not believe justice has been served.
“We don’t believe in ‘truth and reconciliation’,” she says.
Despite her failing health, Tolfree, along with the cousins of only-child Malcolm Rennie, travelled to Finland’s capital, Helsinki, for the International Press Institute’s annual World Congress.
There, Congress attendees are discussing the upcoming feature film ‘Balibo’ – based on the circumstances surrounding the murder of the five journalists – with them, the film’s director, Robert Connolly, and the actor who plays Greg Shackleton in the film, Damon Gameau. The International Press Institute is also backing a resolution condemning the inaction of the Australian and Indonesian governments, and calling for the long-overdue justice these journalists deserve.
The women not only feel a sense of injustice at the hands of the Indonesian government, but also at the Australian administration, who they accuse of covering up the murders for diplomatic means to start with, and then dragging their feet over investigations into the deaths.
An official in the Australian Federal Police reportedly blamed the Balibo family members for the lack of progress – citing in-fighting over the repatriation of the dead journalists’ remains.
“We’ve never argued, have we?” Tolfree asks her colleagues, who shake their heads. They believe such claims have been made to blur the real issues.
“We have had some justice by this film and by the coroner’s inquest,” says Tolfree. “But we’ve never had a public apology from the Australian government.”
But the greatest form of justice that the women want – the arrest, trial by jury and conviction of the journalists’ killers – is unlikely to come, despite the coroner’s inquiry naming Indonesian officers responsible for ordering the killings.
“We’re never going to get justice in the way that we’ll see the two named men in an Australian court,” adds Margaret Wilson, Rennie’s cousin. “They’ll never get extradited from Indonesia.”
The womens’ campaign has raised the profile of the journalists’ deaths – something they feel was ignored in the years after the attack.
“I will admit I was very shocked in 1975-76, I don’t think the press spoke out for the journalists, but maybe they were also suppressed by their governments,” Tolfree explains.
“In the latter years they have covered the stories more. In 1975-76 no one seemed to want to cover the story, even though they were their colleagues.”
Malcolm Rennie’s cousin, Sue Andel-Spence, agrees. “I heard on the radio – it must have been three or four days afterwards – that five Australian journalists were missing in East Timor. But then you heard nothing else on the radio after that.”
“This case has special resonance for Australian journalists,” explains ‘Balibo’ director Connolly.
“These journalists weren’t killed in cross-fire, these journalists were killed for being journalists,” he adds, “and this is a story that needs to be told.”
Actor Gameau says that he felt extremely honoured to play the role of Shackleton.
“To be here with these guys [the families] it’s really humbling,” Gameau explains. “Being here [at the IPI conference] it makes you realise just how pertinent the film is, the relevancy to what is going on at the moment,” he adds.
Connolly hopes his film will increase public understanding of the slaying of the journalists.
“I think this film will speak to a younger generation. Cinema is a very powerful way of conveying stories globally. Although this film is about events thirty-four years ago, it speaks volumes today. This is about repression of truth through the murder of journalists.”
Sue believes her cousin and the other men are now an inspiration for other journalists.
“For him, it was more than a job,” she says.