In recent years, the concept of “fake news” has gained popular currency. People, generally, are less accepting of the word of mass media. However, there was a time when people trusted the news outlets. If Tom Brokaw or Walter Cronkite reported something, we assumed it was true and we had great respect for those who reported the news. Balibo harks back to a time when people looked to the newsman to find out what was happening in the world and relied upon reporters to deliver the truth.
The film, Balibo, follows the Balibo Five, a cohort of five journalists who were captured by Indonesian forces invading the tiny country of East Timor in 1975. They subsequently were killed while reporting on the conflict.
The story begins when Roger East, a veteran journalist, journeys to East Timor in 1975 to investigate the death of the reporters and to set up a news agency to broadcast news about the impending Indonesian invasion. He does this at the encouragement of young, charismatic activist Jose Ramos-Horta, who was East Timor’s secretary of foreign affairs.
Jose feels that the desperate plight of the people of East Timor will receive more international attention if the fate of the Australian journalists in East Timor is front-page news. The journalists are white while the East Timorese are brown, and the English media will identify with the Anglo journalists, not the brown-skinned Timorese whom, by and large, are anonymous. In fact, at the end of the invasion, which took place over an extended period of time, almost 200,000 East Timorese were killed.
The crux of the film revolves around the question of whether, given the dangerous environment, the journalists who, indeed, were in harm’s way, should have pulled out earlier. The reporters, totally focused on getting out the story, are depicted as naïve and naturally competitive, two qualities that often encourage simplistic thinking without considering the risks involved in a particular course of action.
Jewish law has a clear perspective on risk-taking. Dr. Daniel Eisenberg, a Jewish educator, writes: “Risk is everywhere — an unavoidable part of daily life. What are the parameters of our obligation to protect ourselves from everyday dangers? Judaism teaches God gave each person a body to use, but we are required to protect it. This is a difficult balancing act. If we are overly cautious, we miss out on much in life. Yet if we are reckless, we risk destroying the very body we were given to protect. What is the prudent course and what are the limitations?”
Dr. Eisenberg provides an answer: “In addition to removing hazards, the Torah twice commands us to protect our health, safety and well being. For example, the Talmud forbids walking near a shaky wall, lest it fall and injure the passerby. Similarly, all dangerous pursuits (bungy-jumping is an example) are proscribed.
Obviously, there is latitude in evaluating how much risk is acceptable. A person need not avoid small risks that are accepted by the rest of normal society without undue concern.
Judaism recognizes the need to earn a livelihood as a mitigating factor in allowing risky behavior. The Talmud asks: Why does the worker climb the tree and risk his life? Is it not to earn his wages?
Intrinsic in the Talmud’s argument is the assumption that one may take risks to earn a living that would not otherwise be permitted. Someone has to paint the bridge, build the skyscraper, and dive for pearls. So long as the risk stays within reasonable parameters, such activities are permitted as professions.
The exact degree of risk in any endeavor always remains hazy. And the overarching rule is the obligation to protect one’s health.”
It is clear that the idealistic journalists in Balibo confront extraordinary risk to life and, from the perspective of Jewish law, overreach normal standards of risk. Although their goal is worthy, they make the mistake of accepting an unacceptable risk.