Attacks on journalists in Indonesia raise concern as media across region face repressive laws in battle to report.
Medan, Indonesia – 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.
“This was highly unusual,” his friend and fellow journalist, Rencana Siregar, told Al Jazeera. “In the 12 years that we had been friends, he hardly ever posted personal pictures. 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 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.
“The murder of Mara Salem Harahap is the fourth case of violence against journalists that has occurred in North Sumatra in the past month,” Liston Damanik, the head of the Indonesian Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) in Medan, told Al Jazeera. “Cases like this and atrocities against journalists are increasing, presumably because there is no legal certainty from the police regarding these cases.”
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.
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.
“Fundamental freedoms have been in decline under the Perikatan Nasional’s government since March 2020,” Nalini Elumalai, the Malaysia senior programme officer at ARTICLE 19, which advocates for the reform of laws that restrict free expression and documents violations of freedom of expression in Malaysia, told Al Jazeera.
“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.”
Nalini added that the authorities in Malaysia have harassed, investigated, prosecuted and denied the right to access information of the media and that, “the government’s stance towards independent media has been particularly aggressive, with journalists regularly facing legal harassment and threats.”
In 2021, Malaysian online newspaper Malaysiakini was fined 500,000 Malaysian ringgit ($120,328) for reader comments on its site, and five of its journalists were summoned for questioning, Wathshlah G Naidu, executive director of Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) in Malaysia, told Al Jazeera.
Other media outlets including China Press and Free Malaysia Today also had journalists who were questioned by police for their reporting, both this year and in 2020.
“Various repressive and archaic laws were used against the media and journalists last year,” Wathshlah said. “These laws include Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia (CMA) Act 1998, the Sedition Act 1948, Section 504 of the Penal Code, Section 505 of the Penal Code and the Printing Presses and Publications (PPPA) Act 1984. Other laws include Section 203A of the Penal Code and Section 114A of the Evidence Act 1950. The trend is often to target and intimidate the media using these laws when the government is portrayed in a negative light.”
The Perikatan Nasional administration of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin took control of the country in March 2020 amid the collapse of the government elected two years before.
In January of this year, Muhyddin declared an “Emergency” including the suspension of Parliament, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In March, the government used its emergency powers to impose a sweeping “Fake News” Law, which the previous government had repealed.
“We are rather concerned with the status of media freedom in Malaysia and the related trend of limiting access, harassment and intimidation against the media by the authorities,” Wathshlah said, noting Malaysia’s ranking in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) annual press freedom index had dropped 18 places to 119 (out of 180 countries ranked). The previous year, it had recorded its best-ever ranking at 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 from an anti-blasphemy law and the Law on ‘Informasi dan Transaksi Elektronik’ (Electronic and Information Transactions Law).
“In 2020, the government took advantage of the Covid-19 crisis to reinforce its repressive weaponry 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 government’, the report continued.
Rencana says the authorities need to provide more support to journalists, so that they can do their jobs without fear.
“We need the police to help us, especially during the pandemic when our work is even tougher than usual,” he said. “How can we be professional when we have to deal with all of these problems at the same time, and worry about being shot or arrested when we are just trying to do our jobs?”
“This is a democracy, but how can a democracy function in such conditions?”
Follow Al Jazeera English: