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A freelance journalist then working for the Australian Associated Press (AAP), East came to Portuguese Timor in October 1975 following up the story of the Balibo Five, who had been killed by the Indonesians in an incursion just weeks before. Previously, he had worked as a publicity officer for the Country Party in Queensland, and had been working in Darwin as a press officer for the Darwin Reconstruction Commission, set up following the devastation of the city by Cyclone Tracy in December 1974.
At this time, East Timor was under de facto rule of the Fretilin administration as the Portuguese governor had retreated to the island of Atauro and was refusing to return to the capital Dili. Fretilin would issue a Unilateral Declaration of Independence on 28 November.
East was one of only three journalists in Timor— the others being Michael Richardson of The Age and Jill Jolliffe, a freelancer then working for Reuters. When it became obvious a full-scale invasion by Indonesia was imminent, Richardson and Jolliffe decided to evacuate with the Red Cross to Darwin, but East decided to remain with the Timorese. East planned to retreat with Fretilin forces to the mountains in the interior and report from there to the outside world but he was captured by the Indonesians before this could happen. Eyewitnesses later reported that he was brought with many other prisoners to the Dili waterfront and executed by firing squad, along with scores of others.
Anthony LaPaglia starred as Roger East in the Australian film Balibo, released in 2009. It tells the story of the Balibo Five. The movie is co-written by David Williamson and Robert Connolly and is based upon Cover-Up, by Jill Jolliffe.
- Anne Barker, Justice demanded for 'sixth Balibo journalist', 5 June 2007
- Timor: A People Betrayed by James Dunn, ABC Books, 1996, page 254