‘Balibo 5’ legacy inspires a new generation of journalists in Timor Leste

"Its 42 years since five Australian journalists were killed in the tiny town of Balibo, near the border between Indonesia and Timor-Leste. "

Teodosia dos Reis

Alipe dos Santos, coordinator of Balibo Community Learning centre is interviewed by Teodosia dos Rei
Alipe dos Santos, coordinator of Balibo Community Learning centre is interviewed by Teodosia dos Reis on the anniversary of the Balibo 5 killings (Photo: Laura McDowell)

Its 42 years since five Australian journalists were killed in the tiny town of Balibo, near the border between Indonesia and Timor-Leste.

The journalists were there to report on Indonesia’s invasion of Timor Leste in 1975.

On the anniversary of their deaths this month, Teodosia dos Reis travelled to Balibo, where their legacy remains strong.

I’m in Balibo, a small town on top of a hill, about four hours drive west of Timor-Leste’s capital, Dili. Looking north I can see the ocean. To the west I can see West Timor, part of Indonesia. 

Walking down the main street I see lots of empty concrete houses covered with graffiti. Some of these buildings were used by the Indonesian military to execute Timorese. Now they remain abandoned. They’re a haunting reminder of Indonesian occupation.

This little town is full of significance for Timor-Leste. So close to the border, Balibo residents have seen a lot of conflict.

In 1975, five Australian journalists came here to report on the Indonesian invasion of Timor Leste. They were shot dead on the job. 

No one is sure exactly what happened that day, but it is widely believed that they were deliberately targeted and killed. 

No one was ever charged for their deaths.


When I visit, on the anniversary of their deaths, the town is busy as people prepare events to commemorate the loss. Like a football tournament and a concert.

Following the bloody invasion of 1975, Timor Leste lived under Indonesian occupation until 1999. 

Amnesty International estimates that during this time, about 200,000 Timorese people, almost a third of the population, died from famine and violence.

44 year old Beatiz Silava Santos, tell me that the invasion, and the 5 journalists have not been forgotten here.

“At the time I was a child. I didn’t directly see them being assassinated, I only know about it through other people. But it’s still really important for me to remember.”

The Balibo 5 journalists were Gary Cunningham, Greg Shackleton, Brian Peters, Tony Stewart and Malcolm Rennie.

Back in 1975, they painted an Australian flag on the wall of the building they stayed in, hoping it would give them some protection from the brutalities of the Indonesian Special forces.

It didn’t save them. 


In 2003 that same building became the Balibo Community Learning Centre, set up to honour the memory of the journalists.

The coordinator of the Centre is Alipe dos Santos. He walks with a limp after being shot in the foot during the 1991 Massacre of Santa Cruz, where at 250 Timorese people were killed by Indonesian troops as they demonstrated for independence. 

“As a resistance fighter I want to dedicate my life to support the museum and the memory of the five journalists who were killed here. I consider them as part of Timor because they dedicated their lives to Timor-Leste’s Independence,” he said.

Balibo House Trust also operates out of the building now. It supports the community, providing a dentist, education programs and a mechanics workshop.


This is my first visit to Balibo.

For journalists like me, it’s a particularly important place. The Balibo 5 story fills me with both sadness, and inspiration.

Raimundo Oki, one of just a few investigative journalists in Timor Leste, agrees.

“As a Timorese journalist we have to be brave. Because Timor Leste is a very new country, a small country with a small population. But we have natural resources. We need to be strong enough to go against the true enemy of the people.” 

He continued, “the corruption we have to fight. Fight and fight against. Corruption, nepotism, abuse of power within the government.”

Democracy is still new in Timor-Leste, and there are few journalists who are brave or skilled enough to tell challenging stories.

Virgilho Guterres from the Timor-Leste Press Council says that the Balibo 5 story is an inspiration to a new generation of journalists.

“What we need to learn from them is spirit of the sacrifice even though they are from a foreign country they love their profession. In that way we need to learn from them.”



  • Balibo
  • Balibo 5
  • Timor Leste
  • Timor Leste journalism


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