Silencing the media: Indonesia’s shooting reveals news risks News of press freedom


Medan, Indonesia – A few days before receiving a fatal shot in the thigh, Indonesian journalist Mara Salem Harahap, 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 home. During the trip, they took a family photo together and Marsal shared the image on social media.

“This was very unusual,” her friend and journalism colleague Rencana Siregar told Al Jazeera. “In the twelve years we had been friends, he almost never published personal images. He wanted to protect his family. “

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

During the previous months, the 46-year-old had written about a local nightclub in the city claiming it was related to organized crime, gambling and drug trafficking. In addition to writing about the nightclub, Marsal had also posted 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 researching the nightclub. We talked for a long time, maybe five hours. He was very persuasive when he told me he needed to be investigated and he was a tough journalist. He didn’t seem to be afraid. “

It was the last time Rencana saw Marsal.

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

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

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

The motive for the murder was “giving a lesson to the victim,” Panca said at a news conference last week, though it’s unclear if the army officer and nightclub owner planned. kill Marsal or just scare him.

“The assassination of Mara Salem Harahap is the fourth case of violence against journalists in North Sumatra in the last month,” Liston Damanik, head of the Indonesian Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), told Al Jazeera of Medan. “These cases and atrocities against journalists are on the rise, presumably because the police have no legal certainty about these cases.”

Liston added that on May 29, unidentified assailants attempted to burn down the house of another journalist also based in Pematangsiantar and that on May 31, the car of a Metro TV journalist was set on fire. On June 13, Molotov cocktails were thrown at the home of the parents of a third journalist in the town of Binjai, on the outskirts of Medan.

Although AJI does not have firm data on acts of violence against journalists in North Sumatra due to lack of reports and lack of legal proceedings, Liston said the recent period of attacks shows the dangers facing ‘confront journalists in the region. These may include physical violence as well as legal issues such as processing under the Indonesian Law on Information and Transactions (ITU).

Malaysiakini was fined earlier this year for comments left by readers instead [File: Lim Huey Teng/Reuters]

The law has been used more and more against journalists in recent years instead of the traditional Indonesian press law, which offers journalists a level of professional protection against cases of defamation and defamation and is usually processed in consultation with the Indonesian Press Council in the first instance, rather than with the local police authorities directly.

“Journalists in North Sumatra are not only threatened with being caught by the ITE law, but now their homes are covered in Molotov cocktails, allegedly by people who are dissatisfied with their journalistic work,” Liston said.

Freedoms under fire

In neighboring Malaysia, journalists have also come under pressure, including Tashny Sukumaran, now a senior analyst at the ISIS Malaysia think tank.

A journalist for ten years, he previously worked for the English-language Malay newspaper The Star and the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

“Last year I was involved in several cases related to my reports and writings, including a book on the general election that I helped ban,” he told Al Jazeera. “On May 1, I reported on an immigration raid on a ‘red zone’ of COVID-19 in the heart of Kuala Lumpur and they both tweeted and wrote a story about the raid.”

A few days later, Tashny was informed that the police wanted to interrogate her under the Communications and Multimedia Act and Article 504 of the Malaysian Penal Code. His phone was confiscated and has not yet been returned to him, and he faced approximately five pages of questions about his report. Al Jazeera was too investigated for a documentary on treatment of migrants during the first closure of the country.

“Fundamental freedoms have been in decline under the Perikatan National government since March 2020,” explains Nalini Elumalai, Malaysia’s Article 19 program officer, who advocates reforming laws restricting free speech and documenting violations of freedom of expression in Malaysia told Al Jazeera.

“The government has repressed 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. The media is one of the main targets of these attacks ”.

Nalini added that the Malaysian authorities have harassed, investigated, prosecuted and denied the right to access media information and that, “the government’s stance towards the independent media has been particularly aggressive, with journalists facing regularly to legal harassment and threats “.

In 2021, the Malaysian online newspaper Malaysiakini received a fine of 500,000 Malaysian ringgit ($ 120,328) for reader comments Instead, and five of his journalists were summoned for questioning, he told Al Jazeera Wathshlah G Naidu, executive director of the Independent Journalism Center (ICJ) in Malaysia.

Other media outlets, including China Press and Free Malaysia Today, also had journalists questioned by police for their reports, both this year and in 2020.

“Last year several repressive and archaic laws were used against the media and journalists,” Wathshlah said. These laws include section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) of 1998, the Sedition Act of 1948, section 504 of the Penal Code, section 505 of the Penal Code and the 1984 Press Act. and publications (PPPA). Other laws include Section 203A of the Penal Code and Section 114A of the Evidence Act of 1950. Often the tendency is to target and intimidate the media using these laws when the government presents itself negatively. ”.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s administration of Perikatan Nasional took control of the country in March 2020 amid the collapse of the elected government two years earlier.

In January this year, Muhyddin declared an “emergency” that included the suspension of Parliament, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In March, the government used its emergency powers to impose a sweep. “False news”Law, which had the previous government repealed.

“We are rather concerned about the state of media freedom in Malaysia and the trend related to the restriction of access, harassment and intimidation against the media by the authorities,” Wathshlah said. , pointing to Malaysia’s annual Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranking press freedom index had dropped 18 places to 119 (from 180 classified countries). The previous year he had recorded his best ranking in history with 101.


In the same index, Indonesia was slightly above Malaysia in 113th place, although the report also noted that “Many journalists say they censor themselves because of the threat of an anti-blasphemy law. and the Law on “Informasi dan Transaksi Elektronik” (Electronics) and the Law on Information Transactions).

In 2020, the government took advantage of the Covid-19 crisis to bolster its repressive weapons against journalists, who are now banned from publishing not only “false information” related to the coronavirus, but also any “information hostile to the president or the government, ”the report continued.

Rencana says authorities need to give more support to journalists so they can do their job without fear.

“We need the police to help us, especially during the pandemic, when our work is even harder than usual,” he said. “How can we be professionals when we have to deal with all of these problems at once and worry about being shot or arrested when we’re just trying to do our job?”

“This is a democracy, but how can a democracy work in these conditions?”

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