Medan, Indonesia – Just days before he was fatally 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 a two hour drive from their home. During the trip, they took a family photo together and Marsal shared the photo on social media.
“It was very unusual,” his friend and fellow journalist Rencana Siregar told Al Jazeera. “In the 12 years that we have been friends, he has hardly ever posted any personal photos. He wanted to protect his family.
Marsal, the editor of Lasser News Today, an online news site based in Pematangsiantar, a town of about 250,000 people in the heart of Sumatra, had every reason to be cautious.
In recent months, the 46-year-old had written about a local nightclub in the city which he said was linked to organized crime, gambling and drug trafficking. In addition to writing about the nightclub, Marsal also posted about it on his Facebook account.
“He was like my foster brother,” Rencana said. “Two weeks before his death he came to see me and we talked about his investigative work on the nightclub. We talked for a long time, maybe five hours. He was very persuasive when he told me that this needed to be investigated and that he was a tough reporter. He didn’t look scared.
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 Sumatran Police Chief Inspector General Panca Putra announced that two suspects had been arrested – the owner of the nightclub Marsal was investigating and an unidentified military official.
According to the police chief, Marsal had previously met the owner of the nightclub, who complained about the unflattering media coverage.
The motive for the murder was “to teach the victim a lesson,” Panca said at a press conference last week, although it is not clear whether the military official and the owner of the box night had planned to kill Marsal or just scare him.
“The murder of Mara Salem Harahap is the fourth case of violence against journalists to have occurred in North Sumatra last month,” Liston Damanik, head of the Indonesian Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI ) in Medan. “Cases like this and atrocities against journalists are increasing, possibly because there is no legal certainty from the police regarding these cases. ”
Liston added that on May 29, unidentified assailants attempted to burn down the home of another journalist also based in Pematangsiantar, and on May 31, a Metro TV journalist’s car 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 reliable data on acts of violence against journalists in North Sumatra due to underreporting and lack of prosecution, Liston said the recent wave of attacks shows the dangers facing face journalists in the region. These can include physical violence, as well as legal issues, such as prosecution under Indonesia’s broader Electronic Information and Transaction Act (UUITE).
In recent years, the law has increasingly been used against journalists in place of the traditional Indonesian press law, which offers journalists a level of professional protection against libel and defamation cases and which is generally dealt with. in consultation with the Indonesian Press Council first, rather than directly with local law enforcement authorities.
“Journalists in North Sumatra are not only threatened with being trapped by the ITE law, but now their homes are being bombarded with Molotov cocktails, allegedly by people who are not satisfied with their journalistic work,” said Liston.
Freedoms under fire
In neighboring Malaysia, journalists 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 the English-language Malaysian newspaper The Star and the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.
“I have been involved in several cases in the past year related to my reporting and writing, including a book on the general election that I helped get banned,” she told Al Jazeera. “On May 1, I reported on an immigration raid in a COVID-19 ‘red zone’ in the heart of Kuala Lumpur and both tweeted and wrote an article about the raid.”
A few days later, Tashny learned that the police wanted to question him under the Communications and Multimedia Law and Article 504 of the Malaysian Criminal Code. Her phone was seized and has not yet been returned, and she was faced with about five pages of questions about her report. Al Jazeera has also been investigated for a documentary on the treatment of migrants during the country’s first lockdown.
“Fundamental freedoms have been in decline under Perikatan Nasional’s government since March 2020,” Nalini Elumalai, senior Malaysia program officer at ARTICLE 19, who advocates for reform of laws that restrict freedom of expression and documents human rights violations. freedom of speech in Malaysia, told Al Jazeera.
“The government has cracked down on criticism of state and state entities, undermining the important role of public accountability and sending a clear message that dissent will not be tolerated. The media are one of the main targets of these attacks.
Nalini added that Malaysian authorities have harassed, investigated, prosecuted and denied the right to access media information and that “the government’s stance towards independent media has been particularly aggressive, with journalists regularly subjected to harassment and of legal threats ”.
In 2021, Malaysian online newspaper Malaysiakini was fined 500,000 Malaysian ringgits ($ 120,328) for reader comments on its site, and five of its reporters were called in for questioning, Wathshlah G Naidu said. , executive director of the Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ) in Malaysia. Al Jazeera.
Other media outlets, including China Press and Free Malaysia Today, have also had reporters questioned by police for their reporting, both this year and in 2020.
“Various repressive and archaic laws have been used against media and journalists over the past year,” Wathshlah said. “These laws include Article 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Law (CMA) of 1998, the Sedition Law of 1948, Article 504 of the Criminal Code, Article 505 of the Criminal Code and the Law of 1984 on Printing Presses and Publishing (PPPA). Section 203A of the Penal Code and Section 114A of the Evidence Act 1950. The tendency is often to target and intimidate the media using these laws when the government is portrayed in a negative light.
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional administration took control of the country in March 2020 amid the collapse of the government elected two years earlier.
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 about the status of media freedom in Malaysia and the related tendency to limit access, harassment and intimidation against the media by the authorities,” Wathshlah said, noting Malaysia’s ranking. in the Reportergovernment took advantages Without Borders (RSF) annual press freedom index. had lost 18 places to 119 (out of 180 ranked countries). The year before, he had recorded his best ranking at 101.
In the same index, Indonesia was slightly above Malaysia in 113th place, although the report also notes that “many journalists say they censor themselves because of the threat of an anti-blasphemy law. and the law on ‘Informasi dan Transaksi Elektronik’ (Electronic and the law on information transactions).
“In 2020, the of the Covid-19 crisis to strengthen its repressive armaments against journalists, now banned from publishing not only ‘false information’ related to the coronavirus but also any ‘information hostile to the president or the government’ . , continues the report.
Rencana says the authorities must 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 where our job is even more difficult than usual,” he said. “How can we be professional when we have to deal with all of these issues at once and fear being shot or arrested when we are just trying to do our job?” ”
“It’s a democracy, but how can a democracy function under such conditions? ”