Silencing the media: Indonesia shooting reveals reporting risks

Just a few days before he was fatally shot in the thigh, Indonesian journalist Mara Salem Harahap, who was known as Marsal, took his wife and two children on a family outing to the city of Medan in North Sumatra, about two hours away from their home. During the trip, they took a family photograph together and Marsal shared the picture on social media.

Marsal, the editor-in-chief of Lasser News Today, an online news site based in Pematangsiantar, a city of about a quarter of million people in the heart of Sumatra, had every reason to be cautious.

During the previous few months, the 46-year-old had written about a local nightclub in the city that he alleged was linked to organised crime, gambling and drug dealing. In addition to writing about the nightclub, Marsal had also posted about it on his Facebook account.

“He was like my adopted brother,” Rencana said. “Two weeks before his death, he came to see me and we talked about his work investigating the nightclub. We talked for a long time, maybe five hours. He was very persuasive when he told me it needed to be investigated and he was a tough journalist. He didn’t seem scared.”

That was the last time Rencana saw Marsal.

On the evening of June 18, Marsal was shot and killed in his car about 300 metres (984 feet) from his home.

Six days later, the North Sumatra police chief, Inspector General Panca Putra, announced that two suspects had been arrested – the owner of the nightclub that Marsal had been investigating and an unidentified army official.

According to the police chief, Marsal had met the owner of the nightclub previously, who had complained about the unflattering media coverage.

The motive for the murder was to, “teach the victim a lesson”, Panca said at a news conference last week, although it is unclear if the army official and the nightclub owner planned to kill Marsal or simply scare him.

Liston added that, on 29 May, unidentified assailants tried to burn down the home of another journalist also based in Pematangsiantar, and that, on 31 May, a Metro TV journalist’s car was set ablaze. On 13 June, Molotov cocktails were thrown into the home of the parents of a third journalist in the city of Binjai on the outskirts of Medan.

While AJI does not have firm data on acts of violence against journalists in North Sumatra due to underreporting and a lack of prosecutions, Liston said the recent spate of attacks show the dangers faced by journalists in the region. These can include physical violence, as well as legal problems, such as prosecution under Indonesia’s broadly worded Electronic Information and Transactions Law (UUITE).The law has increasingly been used against journalists in recent years in place of Indonesia’s traditional Press Law, which affords journalists a level of professional protection against libel and defamation cases and which is usually processed in consultation with Indonesia’s Press Council in the first instance, rather than with local police authorities directly.

“Journalists in North Sumatra are not only threatened with being ensnared by the ITE Law, but now their houses are being pelted with Molotov cocktails, allegedly by people who are not happy with their journalistic work,” Liston said.

Freedoms under Fire

In neighbouring Malaysia, journalists have also found themselves under pressure, including Tashny Sukumaran, now a senior analyst at think-tank ISIS Malaysia.

A journalist for 10 years, she previously worked for Malaysian English-language paper The Star and the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

“I was involved in several cases last year related to my reporting and writing, including a book on the general election I contributed to being banned,” she told Al Jazeera. “On May Day, I reported on an immigration raid in a COVID-19 ‘red zone’ in the heart of Kuala Lumpur and both tweeted and wrote a story on the raid.”

A few days later, Tashny was told that the police wanted to interrogate her under the Communications and Multimedia Act and Section 504 of the Malaysian Penal Code. Her phone was seized and has yet to be returned to her, and she faced approximately five pages of questions about her reportage. Al Jazeera was also investigated for a documentary on the treatment of migrants during the country’s first lockdown.

“The government has cracked down on criticism of the state and state entities, undermining the important role of public accountability, and sending a clear message that dissent will not be tolerated. Media is one of the main targets of these attacks.”

Related Articles

Back to top button