The Red Zone: Threats and Murders of Journalists in North Sumatra

North Sumatra sees the highest number of cases of violence, including murders of journalists in Indonesia. Most media companies are reluctant to provide appropriate aid, while the police remain the largest group of perpetrators of violence against journalists.

This feature is part of our Media Freedom Voices series.

Trigger warning: This article includes a depiction of murder.

The day before he was murdered, Marsal Harahap, a 42-year-old journalist in Pematang Siantar, North Sumatra, took his wife, Bonia, and their two daughters for a nice dinner at a restaurant. Marsal took pictures of the warm moments with his phone and uploaded those pictures to his Facebook account.

“During our 16 years of marriage, never once he showed our pictures [on social media] because he never wanted people to identify the faces of his family,” Bonia tells New Naratif. 

Marsal was afraid that his family would be affected negatively due to the dangerous nature of his job. 

The trip home from the restaurant was a normal journey without any signs of danger. At home, Marsal continued his activity as usual. The next day (18/6/2021), in the afternoon, Marsal said goodbye to his wife before taking off to work. Already in the car, he took a good long look at his wife’s face—a usual loving gesture he used to do before going to work. However, Bonia recalls how Marsal took a longer time than usual to stare at her face that time.

Marsal worked for a local online media company he founded, Lasser News, in Pematang Siantar. Mostly, he wrote about corruption, narcotics, and gambling cases.

Marsal and his family did not share any communication during the day. However, at around 10 p.m., one of Marsal’s daughters sent him a message, asking him to buy a bottle of vitamins for Bonia on his way home. Marsal said yes to the request through a short text message. 

The only odd thing about that night was that Marsal did not contact Bonia to ask if she wanted him to bring her food, something he usually did.

It was already 11:30, and there were no signs of him heading home. Bonia was watching television, and the kids were doing their homework. She was not worried–Marsal was probably busy working or hanging out with his friends. 

The peaceful night turned horrific when a neighbour called Bonia on the phone, telling her Marsal’s car was seen stopping by the road near a telecommunication tower. The location was around five minutes of walking distance. She immediately set off to the site.

Marsal’s car window was opened. Marsal, breathless and weak, was drenched in blood. A bullet wound was seen on his thigh.

“When I was there, he was still alive; he was still talking to me, although his voice was very weak. Suddenly he cried and mumbled loudly, but it was impossible to grasp what he was saying. He threw up several times, and I took off his clothes,” Bonia says.

People who lived in the neighbourhood came and helped. They took Marsal to a hospital in Pematang Siantar, around 30 minutes drive from the location, while Bonia stayed home to take care of the kids.

Marsal died in the hospital due to bleeding after the shot. When she heard about the news, Bonia sank to her seat in disbelief.

“I felt all kinds of feelings. It was very hard to accept the fact,” she says.

The family mourns Marsal’s death to this day. On top of that, Bonia also has to make ends meet, replacing Marsal as the breadwinner.

The Frequent Cases of Violence and Murders of Journalists

Marsal’s murder was yet another one in a string of murders of journalists in North Sumatra. It was triggered by the news he wrote about alleged narcotics dealings at a local nightclub named Ferrari. Allegedly, the dealings happened during the restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Marsal wrote at least 11 news articles on the issue. His last article was published several hours before he was shot.

The killing was ordered by Sudjito, owner of Ferrari. Sudjito deployed two people, Yudi and Awaluddin, to shoot Marsal. Sudjito and Yudi were sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, while Awaluddin died before his verdict.

Bonia was disappointed with the verdict of 20 years imprisonment—far lower than the initial indictment of a life sentence. However, she felt powerless about the case.

Collage art by E.M. & New Naratif.

The murder of Marsal Harahap shows a bleak picture surrounding the freedom of press in North Sumatra. From 2018 to 2021, Medan’s chapter of Independent Journalist Alliance (AJI Medan) recorded 20 cases regarding the oppression of press freedom in North Sumatra, including intimidation, arson, battery, and murders of journalists.

AJI Indonesia’s advocacy division sees North Sumatra as a red zone since it is the area with the highest number of violence against journalists at 329 cases from 2006 to June 2023. It makes one third of the whole recorded violence against journalists in Indonesia (998 cases) during the time period. It was only followed by Jakarta (140), East Java (92), South Sulawesi (62), West Java (60), and Papua (47).

The number of violence against journalists in Indonesia increased from 43 cases (2021) to 61 cases (2022). The number of violence has reached 42 cases by mid-2023. Most were done in the form of intimidation, physical violence, forced silencing (such as erasing report files and documents), and cyber attacks.

Advocate Coordinator of AJI Indonesia, Erick Tanjung, says there are differences between assaults happening to journalists in big cities and in little towns.

“In the big cities, such as Jakarta, the repeated patterns are cyber attacks, both to the journalists and to the media. It can be in the form of doxxing, hacking of WhatsApp accounts of the journalists and the media, among others,” says Erick.

Meanwhile, in little towns, most attacks happen in the form of intimidation or threats of physical assault and death threats, as what rampantly happens in North Sumatra.

The fact that most media companies only provide inappropriate wages to the journalists worsens the condition. Their failure in providing protection and appropriate wages encourage the journalists to do unethical practices, including blackmail, i.e. asking money from news subjects so that the ugly truth about them won’t be exposed. Christison Sondang Pane, better known as Tison, head of AJI Medan, explains,

“What I see as the root of the problem is that media companies have weak control, supervision, and protection for their employees. Many media companies are not serious about supervising their journalists to conduct their job in an ethical manner, incentivising the employees to engage in blackmail.”

This makes things difficult for advocacy efforts to assist journalists against violence in North Sumatra.

Eka Azwin Lubis, Advocate Coordinator of AJI Medan when Marsal’s case happened, says that Marsal had been involved in three legal cases during his time as a journalist. Marsal was accused of defamation and blackmail.

Not long before Marsal’s murder, AJI Medan also investigated a case of murders of journalists in which former journalists Maratua Siregar and Maraden Sianipar were murdered. They found the two were killed not because of their journalistic work. “However [we] still urge the Police to uncover the perpetrators as well as their motive,” says Eka.

In many cases of violence against journalists in North Sumatra, the victims and the perpetrators turn out to be acquaintances. However, when conflict occurs, the perpetrators choose to use violence.

Another case that should gain more attention is the case of Persada Bhayangkara Sembiring, a journalist and owner of Jelajah Perkara in North Sumatra. Persada fell victim to an attack whereby acid was thrown on his face after he wrote about a gambling case in Medan. 

A gambling dealer ordered the two people who threw acid to Persada’s face. The attack caused a permanent scar. However, instead of following up the case with legal procedure, the Police only processed the counter-indictment against Persada for blackmail

Collage art by E.M. & New Naratif.

Eka emphasised that even when a journalist blackmails a subject and threatens to expose their ugly side, violence should never be the response.

“There are legal procedures that can be used if anyone feels uncomfortable by a minority of unethical journalists,” Eka says.

Is the Police a Protector or Perpetrator?

Although Indonesia has the legal instruments to protect journalists after the 1998 Reformation through Press Law, it still has terrible implementation. It is very rare that law enforcement officers provide protection to journalists through Press Law.

“Those who are responsible [for handling violence cases towards journalists] are the Police. And then the law enforcement, including the judges and prosecutors at court,” says Erick Tanjung.

Instead, what is currently happening is the opposite. Police officers make up the biggest number of perpetrators of violence against journalists. AJI Indonesia recorded the police as perpetrators in 147 cases of violence against journalists from 2006 to mid-2023).

The lack of protection provided by media companies in North Sumatra exacerbates the situation. When violence happens, media companies are typically reluctant to provide legal aid to their journalist victims. Tison says,

“The company should be at the forefront of defence. Journalists should not only expect protection from professional alliances. The companies should not only employ but also protect.”

According to Jhonni Sitompul, a North Sumatran and senior journalist specialising in political issues, many times violence happens when a figure of authority dislikes an ugly spotlight shone on them. 

“Many times, just because a government official does not like to be scrutinised, they would shut access to journalists and use their power to abuse the journalists,” Jhonni says.

Jhonni has received various threats of physical assault such as, “I’ll break your neck.” He has also experienced a beating by a gang of Public Order Enforcers Police (SatPol PP), which he alleged to have acted under an order by a government official.

Another journalist, Array Argus, also had fallen victim to a violent act done by law enforcers. Agus was physically assaulted by military soldiers during a coverage of a protest by residents of Sarirejo, Medan, North Sumatra.

According to Array, many law enforcement officers do not understand the press law, including the existence of accountability right, i.e. the right to deny broadcasted information that is thought to be defaming. The law enforcers’ low level of legal knowledge encourages them to resort to intimidation and threats. Array says,

“In my opinion, the press freedom [in North Sumatra] is still nonexistent, especially when journalists are face to face with law enforcers, the police, and the military.”

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