Companion to East Timor - Lindsay Murdoch

Lindsay Murdoch


Lindsay Murdoch born 1954, Cowes, Phillip Island, Victoria.

Married with two children

Began journalism career aged 17 at the Guardian newspaper in the Victorian town of Warragul (circulation approximately 1,500).

Joined The Age newspaper of Melbourne in 1977.

Won two Walkley awards for journalistic achievement for coverage of East Timor.


I made my first of more than 50 trips to East Timor in 1989 with then-AAP (Australian Associated Press), now Sunday Age, journalist Tom Hyland. Getting permission to visit Indonesia's 27th province was not easy. Indonesian authorities in Jakarta had previously only allowed small, carefully-selected and tightly-controlled groups of foreign journalists to visit East Timor, usually for a day or so.

The only person who could grant a foreign journalist a surat jalan or permit to travel to East Timor was Indonesia's Director-General of the Department of Information, Dr Janner Sinaga. Sitting behind a large wooden desk in his sparse office, Dr Sinaga made clear he was not going to give us permission unless we displayed in-depth knowledge of Indonesia in general and East Timor in particular.

"Can you recite the principles of Pancasila,?" Dr Sinaga asked, referring to the five principles of the philosophical foundation upon which Indonesia was based under the country's President Suharto.

I could not.

"Come back when you can," Dr Sinaga told me.

I learnt the principles, which include belief in one God and the unity of Indonesia, before we nervously returned to the director-general's office. Dr Sinaga granted the permits: we were to be the first Australian journalists allowed to enter East Timor unescorted since Indonesia's 1975 invasion of the former Portuguese territory.

Arriving at Dili airport, however, Hyland and I were told that at least half of the province was "off-limits" to us.
Despite being declared "open" by Indonesian officials East Timor remained in the grip of military control.

In February 1991 Hyland and I returned to Dili, the seaside town that serves as East Timor's capital, this time with Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) correspondent Graeme Dobell.

A Catholic priest passed us a letter written by Xanana Gusmao, leader of anti-Indonesian rebels in East Timor's mountains, to Australia's prime minister Bob Hawke.

Mr Gusmao, who was to eventually become independent East Timor's president and prime minister, appealed in the letter for Mr Hawke to press the United Nations to help broker peace for the then disputed province.

Our stories helped focus international attention on the Timorese people's little known struggle for independence.

The last thing I imagined when I left Warragul Technical School aged 17 to work as a teller in a bank was that I would become passionate about the plight of people in a far flung province of Indonesia, let alone become a journalist.

The latter came about through nepotism.

My father George Murdoch, a council worker in the Victorian town of Warragul (population 7,000) was a friend of Tony Pettitt, the owner and editor of the Warragul Guardian (circulation approximately 1,500).

Mr Pettitt mentioned one day to my father he was looking to hire a cadet journalist and my father put in a word for me.

"Send him down to see me," Mr Pettitt said.

The Monday morning I was due to begin work as a teller I went instead to see Mr Pettitt who was sitting behind a desk piled high with council notice papers (which he tore into strips and wrote his copy on).

"Oh, you are George Murdoch's boy. When can you start?.

One of my first jobs was to deliver the papers.

Like most young journalists working in the country it became my ambition to get a job on a capital city daily newspaper.

After two years covering the school beat and courts in Warragul I moved to a start-up regional newspaper, The West Gippslander, which was to be taken over by David Syme and Co Limited, publisher of The Age, widely considered to be one of the world's top 10 newspapers.

My big break in journalism came in mid-1977 when the editor of The Age, Greg Taylor, hired me from David Syme's suburban newspaper group to cover police rounds in a shabby office at Melbourne's Russell Street police headquarters. Long nights on the 7pm to 3am shift were a taste of around the clock reporting that was to come years later as a foreign correspondent.

I was promoted to chief police reporter and then co-authored The Age Tapes, revelations about a network of influence in New South Wales that was to reverberate through state and federal politics throughout much of the 1980s. Creighton Burns, a decade-long Age editor, gave me my first foreign posting in 1989, sending me to report on 13 countries from a base in Singapore.

One of the most frustrating of those countries to cover was Indonesia and one of the reasons for that was Jakarta's sensitivity about East Timor. Obtaining a journalist's visa to enter Indonesia was a difficult exercise involving multiple letter writing and pleas to Indonesian officials. Even if a visa was approved there was no guarantee a journalist would be not be turned around at Jakarta airport, without explanation.

There was a small, stifling hot room at Jakarta airport where arriving journalists were sometimes taken for questioning. I spent hours there. Many foreign journalists were put on Indonesia's immigration black-list over stories they wrote, particularly about East Timor.

I was on the list for several years in the 1990s.

Indonesian officials insisted that foreign journalists not write that Indonesia "invaded" East Timor.

We were supposed to write that Indonesia was invited to annexe East Timor at the invitation of the Timorese after Portugal had abandoned the territory to civil war.

Journalists mostly had to reply on second hand snippets of information about what was happening in East Timor during Indonesia's occupation. One exception was a visit by Pope John Paul II to East Timor in October 1989.

I was among foreign and Indonesian journalists who were flown to Dili on an Indonesian government chartered plane.

As Pope John Paul II was finishing a speech during which he admonished Indonesia to respect human rights in its 27th province a melee broke out in the front of the altar between police and anti-government protestors. Some journalists were black banned over their reporting of the melee. Over the next 10 years Indonesia only rarely gave permission for foreign journalists to visit East Timor unescorted although some entered the province posing as tourists.

An exception for me was the 1993 trial of Xanana Gusmao at Dili courthouse after the guerrilla leader had been captured on 20 November 1992. Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) correspondent Ian McIntosh and I received permits to travel to Dili from Jakarta to cover two weeks of the trial.

Each day Mr Gusmao would sit quietly on the court's front bench listening to accusations made against him. He declined to comment at the end of each day's sitting. "No sorry," he would say before being taken back to his cell. At the end of the trial Mr Gusmao was prevented from reading a 27-page defence statement.

On May 21 1993 he was sentenced to life imprisonment in Jakarta's Cipinang jail for having, according to the presiding judge, "disturbed the lives of East Timorese..

Mr Gusmao was freed after East Timorese voted for independence at a violence-racked United Nations-supervised referendum on 30 August 1999.

I took up a position as Jakarta-based Indonesia correspondent for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald early in 1999, a tumultuous year for the country when Muslim cleric Abdurrahman Wahid, also known as Gus Dur, was elected the republic's fourth president.

The election prompted the resignation of my talented Indonesian journalist assistant Yenny Wahid, who had travelled with me on frequent trips to East Timor. Yenny went to work as a key adviser to the president, her father. Covering East Timor was part of my responsibilities as Indonesia correspondent.

The months leading up to the United Nations vote and the days following were the most frightening of my career. I felt much more comfortable covering the 2003 Iraq war while embedded with United States marines where I was around armed soldiers who had the ability to protect me.

In East Timor during 1999 pro-Indonesian Timorese militia targeted foreign journalists for attack. Some of my colleagues were beaten. On April 4 1999 I was watching television in my hotel room at the Turismo Hotel in Dili when news broke of trouble at Liquica, a town about an hour's drive east of the capital, which was eerily deserted when I arrived there shortly after dawn the next day. A local official washing blood off a veranda claimed that three people had been killed in some kind of unexplained local dispute. Subsequent United Nations inquires revealed that pro-Jakarta militiamen and policemen had attacked the town's Catholic church the day before where about 2,000 civilians had taken refuge. Up to 200 men, women and children were killed in what became known as the Liquica massacre.

A few days before the August 30 referendum I cowered in the bathroom of my room at the waterfront Turismo Hotel as militia stormed through the building looking for foreign journalists. A few days later gunfire was echoing around the United Nations compound in Dili where I had taken refuge when I saw Pedro Unamet Remejio for the first time. I was dozing on a concrete floor as Joanna Remejio muffled the pain of her first child, so I never woke.

"I am very happy my baby is alive," she told me as she nursed Pedro as militia rampaged and looted on the streets outside the compound.

From late 2003 until August 2011 I was based in the Northern Territory for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, from where I made frequent trips to East Timor. No training could have prepared me for the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Flying from Darwin I arrived in Banda Aceh on the island of Sumatra early on the morning of 28 December 2004.

"They have blank stares and don't speak. We walk together among black and bloated bodies still lying in the streets of Banda Aceh three days and 25 minutes after terror tore apart a sunny holiday morning," I wrote.

Residents thought the end of the world had arrived. There were no shortages of hugely rewarding stories amid accounts of extreme suffering and bravery during the creation of East Timor, the world's newest nation. American doctor Dan Murphy had saved many lives during almost a decade working in East Timor but in April 2006 he told me he would not be able to save Maria, a two month old girl born with a whole in her heart in a poor Dili neighbourhood. Doctors in East Timor did not have the equipment to perform the surgery Baby Maria required although it was available in many Australian hospitals. My story about the baby prompted my newspapers to be flooded with offers of help to get Baby Maria to Sydney for the operation. She lived.

I was in a remote Aboriginal community two hours from Alice Springs on the morning of February 11 2008 when I heard news that East Timor's president Jose Ramos-Horta had been shot. After a bone-jarring ride in a four wheel to Alice Springs and flights to Darwin and East Timor I arrived in Dili later the same day. Dr Ramos-Horta, a Nobel laureate, survived and a period of stability followed for the long suffering Timorese.

In August 2011 I was appointed South-East Asia correspondent for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, based in Bangkok.


Lindsay Murdoch with son Evan (2), daughter Emily (8) and wife Feni Hawat in Bangkok in 2012