This image from the film is based on a real person, ABC journalist Tony Maniaty. He was part of an ABC TV crew that included Alex Henderson and Roger Doyle. The crew was travelling with Rick Collins of AAP and Cris Santos, a Fretilin information officer. They met the Channel Seven crew of Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham and Tony Stewart and informed them that it was dangerous to travel to Balibo.
The Maniaty character in the film reflects the audience's questions about the wisdom of travelling to Balibo. The Coroner concluded that the journalists themselves were responsible for being alone in Balibo at the time the Indonesian forces entered. Furthermore, the journalists were staying in the same house (the so-called Chinese House) as Fretilin forces. Should they have placed themselves in danger in this manner? After all, military combatants are legitimate targets and journalists located with military combatants are also liable to incidental killing provided the attacking forces otherwise comply with the laws of armed conflict. These laws include the need to consider the anticipated civilian casualties in relation to the overall military advantage obtained. Journalists enjoy no greater protection from attack than other civilians.
In response to these questions, it must be noted that the journalists were not mistaken for combatants. They clearly identified themselves as Australians (who were not a party to the conflict) and as journalists. They were unarmed and dressed in civilian clothes. They all had their hands raised in the universally recognised gesture of surrender. The Chinese House was not a legitimate military target because there were no Fretilin forces in it when the Indonesian troops entered Balibo. Fretilin forces had retreated and - in real life - were a significant distance
away from Balibo when the journalists were murdered.
Journalists, like other civilians, lose their protection against attack if they participate directly in hostilities, but only for the duration of their participation. Greg Shackleton had earlier conveyed a message to the Fretilin commander in Maliana asking for troops to be sent to Balibo, but he did so before 16th October 1975. He regained his civilian immunity immediately afterwards. The relevant test is whether, at the time of the offence, the Balibo Five were directly taking part in the hostilities. When the Balibo Five no longer constituted an immediate threat of actual harm to the Indonesian forces, they were "protected persons" under article 4 of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention.
The Department of Foreign Affairs received legal advice on these and other points after the murders.