Two Indonesian journalists who were mediating a land dispute between local residents and palm oil plantation giants were found dead in North Sumatra province last week. After the media company they worked for shut down in 2017, the two became freelance journalists and activists who were openly critical of illegal palm oil operations.
These killings come just a month after the palm oil industry faced public backlash for its connections to the forest fires that raged in six provinces for nearly all of September. Police discovered the body of Maraden Sianipar, 55, in a ditch behind a warehouse belonging to palm grower PT Sei Alih Berombang (SAB) on Wednesday, October 30. Martua Parasian Siregar, 42, was found in the same area the next day. The two had stab wounds on their heads, arms, backs, chests, and stomachs. Sianpar’s left arm had been dismembered.
Burhan Nasution, a friend of Sianipar and Siregar, reported them missing on October 30. He had lent them his motorcycle the night before, which they used to visit the SAB plantation, but the two never returned. Eyewitnesses confirmed that Sianipar and Siregar were at the plantation, with some saying they saw security guards carrying sharp weapons.
After receiving the missing person report and speaking with eyewitnesses, police began searching the plantation. Within two hours, they located Sianipar’s body. Nasution’s motorcycle was also found, destroyed.
“The two victims were actively involved in criticising the land dispute,” Syamsul Sitepu, head of the National Independent Assets Watchdog Organisation, told local media. Sitepu also noted that violent altercations between locals and plantation operators were frequent in the area, leading many to believe the murders were carefully premeditated in regards to the land dispute.
The two journalists were involved in an ongoing dispute that began in 2015, advocating for locals’ rights against SAB. SAB continued its expansion attempt, even after the local Department of Forestry ruled that its claims to the plantation in question were illegal. Police announced on Tuesday, November 5 that they had two suspects linked to the killing in custody.
The Indonesian Independent Journalists Association (AJI) has demanded the police to investigate the motive behind these murders. AJI also noted that there have been at least 75 cases of violence against journalists between 2017 and 2018. So far in 2019, 42 such cases have been documented, most of which have not undergone legal proceedings. The actual number is likely higher, considering the number of journalists who informally reported experiencing violence during the massive nationwide protests last month.
Head of AJI, Erick Tanjung, said police are responsible for most cases of violence against journalists. Indonesia is currently ranked 140 out of 180 on the 2019 World Press Freedom Index.