Indonesian police confirm arson in journalist’s death, say they’ve arrested 2 suspects

Media groups allege that fire occurred following a report on gambling operation involving military member.
Arie Firdaus
Indonesian police confirm arson in journalist’s death, say they’ve arrested 2 suspects A temporary fence blocks a woman from seeing the site of a June 27 apparent arson fire that killed journalist Rico Sempurna Pasaribu and three family members in Kabanjahe, North Sumatra, Indonesia, July 4, 2024.
Risky Cahyadi/AFP

Police in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province confirmed Monday that arson was behind a fire that killed a journalist and three family members at his home, and said two men suspected of setting the blaze were in custody. 

The June 27 attack has raised concerns about press freedom in Indonesia amid speculation that the death of Tribrata TV journalist Rico Sempurna Pasaribu, 48, was linked to his reporting on a gambling operation allegedly involving military personnel. Rico, along with his wife, a child and a grandchild died in the fire.

Gen. Agung Setya Imam Effendi, the North Sumatra police chief, identified the suspects only by their initials, RAS and YST. He said RAS was arrested Saturday and had admitted to setting the fire, while YST was apprehended early Sunday.

“They acted as the executors. They sprayed and poured fuel on the front and side walls of the victim’s house,” Agung said during a news conference where he was joined by Maj. Gen. Mohammad Hasan, the regional military commander.

“We must rely on evidence. Whether they were paid and so forth is still under investigation,” Agung said when asked about a potential motive.

“Today we arrested the executors and we are working on identifying individuals connected to them. We have identified those who have interacted with these perpetrators,” he said.

Senior Commissioner Hadi Wahyudi, a North Sumatra police spokesman, said 28 witnesses had been questioned and surveillance footage from around the scene had been analyzed. 

“We will not stop at these two executors. We will expand our investigation,” Hadi said in a written statement to BenarNews on Monday.

The investigation revealed that the two suspects were seen riding a motorcycle toward the victim’s residence and leaving shortly after the fire started, he said.

“The suspects’ motorcycle matches the characteristics analyzed from the CCTV footage,” Hadi said.

Journalist Rico Sempurna Pasaribu, seen here in an undated image from his Facebook page, was killed in what police have determined was an arson fire at his home on June 27, 2024. [Sempurna Pasaribu Facebook]

Agung said the suspects were to be charged with “intentionally causing a fire, explosion, or flood, and as a further consequence, causing general danger to the property or lives of others,” and could face life in prison if convicted. 

He did not say when the charges would be filed. The pair can be detained by investigators for 40 days before being turned over to the prosecutor who has 30 days before taking the case before the court.

Gambling reporting

Suspicions of alleged army involvement were revealed by a fact-finding team from the North Sumatra Journalists’ Safety Committee (KKJ) in Medan. 

KKJ revealed that Rico had reported on gambling activities in Padang Mas, a village in Kabanjahe district, Karo regency, and had named a TNI member allegedly involved. Rico also posted the report on his Facebook page.

After the news was published, a soldier contacted Rico’s superior, requesting the report be taken down, but the request was denied, according to KKJ. The group said Rico had confided in colleagues that he felt uneasy after the report was published.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher Andreas Harsono said the suspected killing of Rico was unprecedented in Indonesia.

“Many journalists have been killed alone. This is the first suspected murder in Indonesian history where a journalist was killed along with his family,” Andreas told BenarNews.

Military support

Mohammad Hasan, the regional military commander, told reporters that troops would back the police investigation.

“We are giving full support. The TNI, specifically Kodam I Bukit Barisan, has been frequently mentioned in the news,” Hasan said, using an acronym for the Indonesian Armed Forces.

The arson attack on the journalist’s residence is the second such incident in North Sumatra in 2024. On March 21, the home of Junaidi Marpaung, a journalist for the online media outlet Utama News, was set on fire by unknown individuals.

Junaidi, who is also a member of the Indonesian Journalists Association (PWI) in Rantau Prapat, Labuhan Batu regency, was reporting on drug trafficking in his area and had received several threats via social media. Junaidi and his family were able to escape the fire.

In 2023, the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) recorded 89 cases of attacks on journalists and media outlets across Indonesia, the highest number in the past decade.

The highest instances of violence occurred against journalists and media covering three key issues: accountability and corruption (33 cases), social issues and crime (25 cases), and environmental and agrarian conflicts (14 cases), according to the report.

It also indicated that the majority of perpetrators were state actors, accounting for 36 cases, followed by non-state actors with 29 cases, and unidentified actors in 24 cases.

HRW’s Andreas noted that violence against journalists tends to occur outside major cities, where oversight from press organizations or civil society groups is less prevalent.

“Journalists in rural areas are more vulnerable. In Jakarta, there are many watchdogs,” Andreas said.

He urged journalists outside big cities to regularly build networks to become more cohesive and protective of one another.

“Journalists need to organize. The more oversight, the lower the potential for violence and attacks,” he said.


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