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Under government pressure, Balibo Five hearings to be held in secret

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has voiced outrage at the pressure applied by the Australian federal government so that three hearings in a coroner's enquiry into the death of Brian Peters and four others journalists in East Timor in 1975 are held in camera.

"The secrecy now surrounding the hearings is the result of disquiet within the government about the increasingly serious allegations of lying by former senior officials in the government and intelligence services," Reporters Without Borders said.

"Who can seriously believe that the testimony of officials about events of 30 years ago will endanger Australia's secret services," the press freedom organisation added. "If the Canberra government is not afraid of the truth, it should let the courts do their work with complete transparency."

On 26 February 2007, Coroner Dorelle Pinch agreed to hold the hearings behind closed doors after the federal government claimed on the basis of two letters from the Defence Signals Directorate that "vital defence interests" would be threatened if they were revealed to the public and press. As a result, journalists could be imprisoned if they publish information given during the three hearings.

The "Sydney Morning Herald" quoted a leading international authority on signals intelligence, Desmond Ball, as saying it was "nonsense" to impose secrecy on the hearings.

The Peters family lawyer, John Stratton, has been given permission to attend the three hearings but is forbidden to reveal what the witnesses say. Shirley Shackleton, the wife of one of the journalists killed with Peters in the East Timor border town of Balibo, told Reporters Without Borders it was a government attempt to "whitewash" what happened and to stop the truth emerging.

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