Australian Archives: Access to ‘secret’ materials

Australia’s Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) has allowed the partial release of previously secret Timor materials held by the National Archives of Australia (NAA).

This 28 March 2011 decision appears to confirm what many researchers believe – that restrictions on access to some NAA-held materials are unwarranted.

Researchers of modern Timor history will welcome this release of hitherto restricted materials from the resource-rich National Archives of Australia. They will also wonder what secrets remain hidden in this and other archives and will continue to question the validity of some reasons for the secrecy.

Clinton Fernandes versus NAA
In 2007, former army intelligence officer and now very active Timor researcher, academic and author Clinton Fernandes sought access to NAA-held records from Australia’s Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO; now called the Defence Intelligence Organisation). The request, while initially broad, focussed on late-1975 post-civil war reports on developments inside East Timor, covering pre-invasion Indonesian military interventions and the killing of journalists at Balibo.

Redacted page released to Clinton Fernandes

Following what AAT President, Justice Downes, described as “significant and unfortunate” delays, Fernandes sought in late 2009 a ruling on what appeared to be a virtual denial of access by NAA. After further delays, NAA released 42 documents to Fernandes, each of which had sections ‘redacted’ (blacked out).

Fernandes appealed against the redacting of the released documents. The AAT decided, after a number of (largely closed) sessions, that 64 redacted passages across 25 documents should no longer be kept secret.

Reasons for secrecy
Australian law requires that some government archival material be kept secret beyond the standard 30-year “closed period”.*

In the case of foreign affairs and defence matters, items which are exempt from release are those which could cause damage to Australia’s security, defence or international relations. The AAT decided that “much of the material” originally redacted on these grounds should remain secret but that a number of passages could be released.

Another reason for witholding access is if the materials were received in confidence from a foreign government or international organisation. The AAT decided on these grounds that redactions made on two pages of each of three documents should remain secret.

The JIO Timor documents
A list of the 42 documents in question and the access decisions on each of them can be found in the full text of the AAT decision.

A larger list of 115 documents in the same series of JIO documents on Timor can be found on NAA’s RecordSearch facility. [Click on the number 115 under Items in this series to see the list]. None of these items have yet been digitised by NAA for public online access.

We hope Clinton Fernandes or others with easy access to the Canberra-held materials at NAA will eventually do a critical analysis of the released texts and what it reveals about the original decisions to deny access.

* The closed period was recently changed to 20 years but will be phased in over the next decade. See earlier Timor Archives article on this change.


1. Lively comment on the decision on the Open and Shut blog.

2. Clinton Fernandes interview on ABC Radio’s National Interest programme, 8 April 2011

3. Clinton Fernandes analysis of released materials. New Matilda, 14 April 2011.

2 Responses to Australian Archives: Access to ‘secret’ materials

  1. Joana Ruas says:

    A minha esperança ainda não se desvaneceu de termos finalmente acesso à verdade sobre um momento particularmente terrível da história do século XX. Agradeço ao historiador Clinton Fernandes a persistência da sua luta. Fico aguardando.

    • timorarchives says:

      [Rough Google Translation of Joana Ruas’ comment]:

      My hope has not faded for us to get access to the truth about a terrible moment in the history of the twentieth century. I thank historian Clinton Fernandes for the persistence of his struggle. I’m waiting.

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