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Roger Anselm East (1922–1975)

by Peter Gifford

Roger East (1922-1975), journalist, was born in Sydney on 7 February 1922, one of four children whose mother died when Roger was three. The children were sent to live with an aunt, but were split up when Roger was nine; he and his brothers Bill and Alan went to their father in Eumungerie, near Dubbo in central west New South Wales, and their sister Glenise (Bowie) to another aunt. He and Glenise did not see one another again until he had joined the Royal Australian Navy soon after the outbreak of the Second World War, but remained close. 

East trained as a signalman and was posted to the cruiser HMAS Hobart, then to corvettes, seeing active service in the then Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and coming under fire in 1942 when several Allied warships were sunk by the invading Japanese. 

At the end of the war he returned to Australia and on his discharge from the navy approached the Daily Liberal newspaper in Dubbo, successfully seeking a cadetship in journalism. From Dubbo he went to Lismore in northern NSW, where by his sister’s account his newspaper stories included a campaign on behalf of an Aboriginal woman refused employment in nursing because of her racial background. His sympathy for the underdog, according to his sister, led to him being labelled a communist and was one reason he decided to leave Australia in the late 1940s and see the world through journalism. 

He landed in England first but by 1955 was working on an English-language newspaper in Cyprus during the struggle there for independence from Britain; he may have attracted the attention of British military intelligence, but was not impeded when he sought to cover the Suez crisis in 1956. In a letter to his sister he expressed pride at having been the first journalist allowed into the Egyptian war zone and the first to get his story out, as a freelance working for English-language newspapers in various parts of the world. Returning to England, he turned his attention to the then new medium of television and worked in the early 1960s for Visnews, which syndicated news stories to various places including Australia. A colleague there, John Tulloh, described him as a forceful character, but very fair and a good mentor: “…there was a hint of laughter behind his voice and people warmed to him”. He was openly anti-colonialist, anti-royalist and anti-Zionist, but another colleague, Jack Sheppard, said that as a journalist East “knew where to go, what questions to ask, how to put it together in a hurry without any fuss, without any hesitation.” By the time East was 50 he was unmarried and had worked in journalism in the UK, Africa, the United States, the Middle East, Europe and China, and in public relations for the United Nations. 

He put journalism aside in the early 1970s but his anti-colonialist feelings were revived when he went to work for a reconstruction agency in Darwin after Cyclone Tracy in 1974 and became interested in events in neighbouring East Timor (Timor Leste), where sections of the population were seeking independence from Portugal, the colonial presence since the 16th century. Perturbed at the lack of what he saw as in-depth, accurate reporting of the situation in East Timor, he decided to go there, and agreed to help a leader of the Fretilin pro-independence group, Jose Ramos Horta – later president of Timor Leste – set up an independent news agency. East was particularly concerned to find out what had really happened to five young Australian journalists who had lost their lives in the border town of Balibo when Indonesian forces intent on incorporating East Timor into Indonesia invaded the area in October 1975. Ramos Horta was concerned that Fretilin had been victorious in the civil war which had ended in August that year, but that Fretilin was being portrayed by pro-Indonesian media as left wing extremist. In fact at the time East arrived, Indonesian regular soldiers were already invading East Timor and had murdered the five Australian newsmen. East obtained eye-witness proof through Ramos Horta that this was what had actually happened, and his ‘scoop’ story was widely used. In retaliation for being ‘scooped’, Reuters newsagency effectively blackballed him by describing him as an agent of Fretilin whose copy could not be trusted, whereas as his final dispatches make clear, he was merely reporting that Fretilin had popular support, and that the East Timorese people were prepared for a long struggle to obtain real independence – which they finally obtained in 2000. An Australian inquest in 2007 into the five Balibo deaths ultimately vindicated East’s reporting. 

East himself died at the hands of Indonesian soldiers on the waterfront at Dili, East Timor, on 8 December 1975. An eyewitness, Pedro Lay, told Australian journalist Jill Jolliffe in Lisbon in 1980 that his own father and brother had died there the same day and in the same fashion – shot by machinegun fire. East had protested vehemently to the last as he was dragged to his death. Robert Connolly, who directed the film Balibo in 2009, has concluded that: “… the silence that the Australian government showed about the death of the Balibo Five made it quite clear to the Indonesian army when they invaded on December 7th can imagine, 'Well, we got away with killing five Australian journalists already, what's it going to matter if we kill another?'” 


  • Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ‘Roger East – Australia’s Forgotten Journalist’, Background Briefing, broadcast Radio National, 14 December 2008 (transcript).
  • Bagwell, S., and Himmelreich, E., ‘The Roger East Story’, New Journalist, May 1979.
  • Ball, D., and McDonald, H., Death in Balibo: Lies in Canberra, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2001
  • Dunn, J., Timor: A People Betrayed, Jacaranda Press, Brisbane, 1983.
  • East, R., ‘East Timor’s Border War’, Australian Left Review, vol. 1, no. 53, 1976, pp. 25-27.
  • Jolliffe, J., ‘An Eyewitness Account Of The Last Hours of Roger East’, Canberra Times, 17 October 1980.
  • …………, Cover-Up: The Inside Story of the Balibo Five, Scribe, Melbourne, 2001.
  • Way, W. (ed.), Australia and the Indonesian Incorporation of Portuguese Timor 1974-1976, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Melbourne University Press, 2000.

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Citation details

Peter Gifford, 'East, Roger Anselm (1922–1975)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 13 June 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012