Radio Maubere

 Vincent Plush

Visitors to the NFSA’s headquarters in Canberra will confront an intriguing element of recent Australian broadcasting history. Tucked away in a corner of the NFSA lobby is an exhibit of what appears to be home radio equipment, the sort of stuff teenage boys and broadcasting buffs have used for decades. At times, they will hear the sort of garbled messages and music that we associate with short wave transmissions. But this material has a much more compelling and extraordinary story to tell.

Radio Maubere was the East Timorese radio station run by the Timorese liberation movement, Fretilin, from September 1975 to December 1978. Maubere is the Tetum word signifying the people, or peasant-folk of Timor. It was adopted by Fretilin as the call name of their radio station which broadcast between September 1975 and December 1978.

Radio Maubere broadcasts were in a mixture of English, Portuguese and Tetum, the native language of Timor Leste. Many broadcasts contained coded messages from Fretilin, the Timorese political movement that resisted the Indonesian invasion of December 1975. For a time, these broadcasts were the only link Fretilin had with the outside world and the only news of events in Timor Leste not filtered through Indonesian propaganda. They constitute what could be the only surviving record of this period of Timorese history.

After the Indonesian invasion of Timor Leste, in December 1975, transmissions continued from various positions in the mountain regions outside Dili, out of reach of the Indonesian military. The Timorese maintained two-way contact with a group of Australian and East Timorese activists operating a clandestine radio receiver at various locations outside Darwin.

One of the Darwin activists operating that receiver was Robert Wesley-Smith [aka Rob Wesley], the older brother of composer Martin Wesley-Smith and a well-known activist in this own right, who donated this equipment to the NFSA in December 2007.

The ‘Realistic’ radio receiver on display in the NFSA foyer was used by Robert Wesley-Smith in his flat in Darwin for almost three years. With a tuned antenna, it gave some surprisingly good recordings. The home-made antenna, constructed around an empty Goulburn Valley fruit can was tuned to the Maubere frequency and was used for three years.

Robert Wesley-Smith and others used this equipment to receive Radio Maubere broadcasts and to publicise these transmissions within Australia. The equipment was frequently relocated around the Darwin area to avoid detection and possible prosecution. At the time, Minister for Post and Telecommunications Eric Robinson informed the House of Representatives that a radio being used to broadcast to Timor had been confiscated.

These broadcasts were recorded on audio cassettes in Darwin by the Darwin-based members of the Campaign for an Independent East Timor. The cassettes were then passed on to the journalist Denis Freney (1936-95). Some of the 192 analogue cassettes, over 50 hours of broadcasts, were later lodged with the NFSA in January 2002 by John Waddingham, the Perth-based archivist and early publisher of the Timor Information Service.

The history of these transmissions is keenly disputed by many factions in the Australia-Timor story. With memories of these events nearly 40 years ago now fading, it is important that we endeavour to assemble as complete and accurate a history of this intriguing story as is now possible to assemble.

The Radio Maubere equipment (NFSA title no. 749321) will remain on display at the NFSA until mid-March.

Main image: Laurentino Pires and Robert Wesley-Smith (aka 'Wes’), transmitting messages to and from Radio Maubere, somewhere outside Darwin, circa December 1977. This photo is part of the NFSA’s extensive Wesley-Smith Collection.