Companion to East Timor - The Illegal Radio Project

The Illegal Radio Project

Perhaps the most elaborate project undertaken by Australian activists in this period was the construction of an illegal radio link between the Northern Territory and East Timor. Warwick Neilley, the organiser of the North Australian Workers Union (which would later be a part of the Miscellaneous Workers Union), bought a few Single Side Band (SSB) radios from a store in Darwin. Some were sent to Fretilin in Dili so as to maintain communications through Outpost Radio, VJY Darwin. At least one radio was retained in Darwin in case of an emergency. Fretilin had set up an evening broadcast, known as Radio Maubere, on the AM band. Fretilin didn't use portable radios at first – they preferred using the Marconi Centre in Dili, which had better facilities.

Once the Indonesian invasion began, the East Timorese resistance used an SSB mounted on the back of a donkey. In December 1975, the Fraser government ordered that the transmissions cease. Brian Manning and his comrades then had to face the task of setting up an alternative communications network. The problem was that while it was legal to listen in to Radio Maubere broadcasts, it was illegal under Australian law to transmit from Australian territory without a license. Activists therefore set up their own transmitter, beginning a covert – and illegal – operation to complement the overt, legal one. The Communist Party network outfitted a Toyota Coaster to look just like a tourist vehicle, complete with a small boat on the roof and a trail bike in the back. An activist would broadcast from it while travelling around the Top End of Australia as a tourist.

The game of cat-and-mouse with federal authorities continued. Sometimes the broadcaster would be caught and the radio confiscated, other times he would evade capture by stealth and deception. The Communist Party network adopted even more covert tactics, seeking volunteers who were reliable, unknown in the Northern Territory and able to operate autonomously. Each volunteer would work in isolation for six months before handing over to the next volunteer. They obtained four such volunteers from the southern states of Australia. The illegal radio operation continued to operate until the end of 1978 as the only link between the external solidarity movement and the Timorese resistance.

Manning gave a very high priority to operational secrecy, limiting control of the radio to all but a very few people. Activists occasionally used ABC's Radio Australia broadcasts to indirectly get Fretilin to listen to the illegal radio's transmissions – they would send press releases to the Radio Australia news desk on Sundays, holidays and slow news periods, knowing that they would be incorporated into the news broadcasts along the following lines: 'Supporters of Fretilin in Darwin are expecting to re-establish communications with the resistance in East Timor.' The powerful Radio Australia transmitter ensured that Fretilin got the message. All the while, activists continued to record the public, legal broadcasts known as Radio Maubere. Without the illegal radio operation, Fretilin would have been unable to maintain contact with the external solidarity movement. Bereft of this support, the Indonesian plan may well have succeeded.

The entire project operated under frugal conditions. Activists in the Illegal Radio Project were hindered by the firm of John Holland Constructions Pty Ltd. The radio frequency used by Alarico Fernandes and the Australian activists was 5270 KHz, the same as John Holland P/L. According to Robert Wesley-Smith, CIET spokesperson at the time,

Whenever the Fretilin leader comes on the air, JH comes in too – deliberately jamming the broadcast … with derogatory remarks like "It's only the red rabbit" or "It's only Fretilin rubbish". It's not as if Alarico interrupts their transmissions. He invariably waits until there is a break, observing the normal courtesies of the airwaves. There have also been times when someone has repeatedly called up a non-answering field station purely for the purpose of blocking out Timor.

Neil O'Sullivan, then the Acting Director of Community Aid Abroad, wrote to the owner, Sir John Holland. O'Sullivan pointed out that the Timorese use of the frequency was 'probably quite irregular' and that they had 'little or no choice in the channel on which they can speak (especially at this time of year when atmospheric interference is at a peak)'. He therefore asked for 'a little flexibility'.

In his reply, Sir John did not discuss O'Sullivan's request to share the frequency. His response was blunt: 'As we are operating our sets legally and for the community's benefit, we can see no reason why we should not continue to do so particularly when we understand that the Fretilin transmissions are illegal.'

The Illegal Radio Project came to an end in the final months of 1978. According to an Indonesian journalist who accompanied the military on their operations, a battle on 23 September 1978 was soon followed by the capture of Alarico Fernandes and the Fretilin radio. The military leader of the armed resistance, Nicolau Lobato, was killed on 31 December 1978. With his death and the loss of the radio, Australian activists could not receive any more news from the territory. Activists continued to maintain a listening watch, tuning in every day from Monday to Saturday at 8.00 a.m. – and often more frequently. After more than a year, however, they stopped because nothing was heard.