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"Balibo Five" inquest: former Australian prime minister suggests journalists acted irresponsibly

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has hailed the progress being made in the inquest into the 1975 deaths of cameraman Brian Peters and four other journalists in East Timor but deplored some of the comments made to the Coroners Court in Sydney on 8 May 2007 by former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and his defence minister, Bill Morrison.

"We share the anger expressed by some of the journalists' close relatives about the inconsistencies in the statements by former senior officials," the press freedom organisation said. "A commission of enquiry should be created as a matter of urgency to determine the then government's role in suppressing information about these five deaths."

Reporters Without Borders added: "The fact that a former prime minister has been forced to come and testify is a victory in this quest for truth and justice. But it is outrageous that he implied that the journalists were irresponsible. Those then in office keep trying to conceal their role and to defend Indonesia's invasion of East Timor. The five journalists clearly saw too much but they were definitely not guilty of anything. Whitlam should be trying to help the coroner to identify those responsible rather than attack the victims."

The 90-year-old Whitlam, who was Labour prime minister in 1975, testified for three hours on 8 May to deputy coroner Dorelle Pinch, insisting he only heard about the deaths of the journalists five days later, although the inquest has already established that some of his ministers learned about it the same day. He also said Australia was unaware of Indonesia's plans to invade East Timor, although many testimonies have indicated otherwise.

Whitlam also claimed to have warned one of the journalists, Greg Shackleton, about the dangers of going to East Timor. "I assumed that Greg Shackleton would have taken notice of my warnings," he said. "I assumed that he would have warned his colleagues. It would have been very irresponsible if he didn't. Then he would be culpable." His testimony outraged Shackleton's widow, Shirley Shackleton, who described it as "bizarre" and "despicable."

Former defence minister Morrison confirmed that he was told of the deaths of the five journalists in the East Timor border town of Balibo the day they occurred. He said he had not warned Whitlam about Indonesia's invasion plans or told him about the deaths of the journalists, who all worked for Australian TV stations, because the prime minister was embroiled in a political crisis. "I think the prime minister had enough problems on his hands," he said.

Gordon Jockel, the former head of the Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO), testified to the deputy coroner on 9 May that a copy of a message intercept confirming the deaths of the journalists was sent the same day to the prime minister's office and the defence ministry.

The coroner has announced that Australia's then ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott, will come and testify in the coming months. Woolcott reportedly warned the Australian government of Indonesia's invasion plans after meeting with senior Indonesian army officers before the deaths of the five journalists.

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