Cablegram to Canberra

Jakarta, 18 October 1975,3.30 p.m.


Australian Journalists in East Timor

As you will know1 it now seems likely that at least four and possibly all five of the Australian journalists were killed in the fighting around Balibo. The Ambassador sought information about them from Malik this morning as did Dan again with Tjan. If true, this is a sad and dreadful development. This incident could have serious consequences and inflame Australian public opinion if it appears that Australian casualties are the result of Indonesian intervention.

  1. More than two weeks ago we reported (O.JA2161 of 30 September2) that Indonesia intended to escalate its involvement in Portuguese Timor, and that there would be an upsurge in the fighting and that Fretilin control as seen by Indonesia was temporary (see also JA2248 of 3 October3).
  2. We also reported to you as early as 23 September the likely use of guerrilla tactics by UDT/Apodeti and the dangers for charter flights (JA20184). On several occasions we have reported the hostility in refugee/UDT/Apodeti circles in the border area to Australians and, more recently, (O.JA2379) we warned that UDT forces would probably kill Darby if he fell into their hands.5
  3. In these circumstances we assume that the Department has firmly discouraged Australians from visiting East Timor including the border area and warned them of the dangers of so doing. In your CH269940 of 22 September you advised us that Charter flights (such as those taking Australian Journalists to Timor) would only be suspended inter alia ‘if the security situation in Timor were to deteriorate to a point which made such flights hazardous’. We assume that this matter is being constantly reviewed.6

[NAA: A10463, 801/13/11/5, i]

  • 1 Less than half a line has been expunged here.
  • 2 Document 246.
  • 3 Document 250.
  • 4 Document 240.
  • 5 13 October. The warning came from Tjan.
  • 6 The text on the cable form was authorised by Woolcott’s own signature. Cablegram CH280046 (19 October), addressed personally to Woolcott from Renouf, protested that ‘the tone and language used in Telegram 2495 regarding Australian journalists in East Timor is quite inappropriate and unacceptable and is resented here. I want to know by return telegram who authorized such a message’. Woolcott, who had been away from Jakarta on an official visit, replied on 22 October (Cablegram JA2568) that he accepted full responsibility for the message and regretted any resentment caused by its wording:any apparent implied criticism of Canberra was certainly not intended. ‘Purpose of telegram was to express view that in present circumstances Australian citizens should be firmly discouraged from visiting East Timor area especially the border areas and warned of the dangers. We are aware that this is being done’. Document 272 and the subsequent exchange have been substantially misquoted in the press.