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American Journalist Working for Environment News Site Arrested In Indonesia

The 30-year-old was put behind bars for allegedly misusing his visa, but observers say his detention is an attempt by the government to stifle press freedom.
translated by Jade Poa
22 January 2020, 2:55pm
Kantor Imigrasi Palangkaraya Tahan Philip Jacobson Jurnalis Mongabay asal AS yang Meliput Konflik Lahan
Philip Jacobson on vacation in Indonesia. Jacobson is an editor at Mongabay who has been detained by Indonesian immigration authorities. Photo courtesy Mongabay

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.

Mongabay editor Philip Jacobson was arrested by immigration authorities in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan province for alleged visa violation on January 21, Tuesday. The US national has his passport confiscated and was told he couldn't leave the city on December 17 after attending a hearing between the People’s Representative Council and the Indigenous People’s Alliance (AMAN).

Over a month later, police formally arrested Jacobson. He now faces up to five years in prison for violating 2011 immigration law.

“We are supporting Philip in this ongoing case and making every effort to comply with Indonesia’s immigration authorities,” Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett Butler said in a press release. “I am surprised that immigration officials have taken such punitive action against Philip for what is an administrative matter.”

Jacobson, 30, is an award-winning journalist from Chicago who primarily focuses on environmental issues. He has also been an editor of Mongabay's investigations of corruption in the farming and forestry sectors. Mongabay reports on conservation and environmental science news.

Jacobson arrived in Palangkaraya on a business visa on December 14 for a series of meetings with local Mongabay reporters as part of his job as an editor. Aside from meeting with the local chapter of AMAN, an indigenous rights advocacy group, he also attended a dialogue between the group and the Central Kalimantan parliament to try to understand the issue better before editing local Mongabay Indonesia journalists' work.

The day he was set to leave on December 17, immigration officers went to his guesthouse, confiscated his passport, and interrogated him for four hours. He chose to remain in the city until the investigation was completed.

The US embassy reached out to the immigration office on December 20 for updates but was not given a timeline. On Christmas Eve, Jacobson was unable to leave Indonesia for the Christmas holidays. Jacobson typically splits his time between his native US and Indonesia and was due to leave on a flight before Christmas.

Instead, Jacobson was forced to remain in Indonesia since his passport was confiscated. Then, on Jan. 21, immigration officers returned to Jacobson’s guesthouse, told him to pack his things, and detained him.

In a press release by Mongabay detailing the issue, it said that it was "clear that someone had photographed Jacobson at the parliament building" during his meeting with AMAN and the Central Kalimantan parliament and "reported him to immigration."

Mongabay is currently coordinating with the Palangkaraya Legal Aid Foundation (LBH) to free Jacobson. The LBH has urged the US embassy in Jakarta to assist in this case.

“Immigration authorities say Philip’s activities in Palangkaraya were not permitted under the type of visa he has,” head of the Palangkaraya LBH, Aryo Waluyo, told VICE.

Waluyo continued that before he was arrested, Jacobson had coordinated with Mongabay journalists to report on a land conflict between local indigenous peoples and corporations.

But the head of AMAN, Margaretha Beraan told VICE that there was no visa violation. "His arrest seems to be related to the content of his report, which was about the farmers accused of burning land plots.”

Human Rights Watch Indonesia Researcher Andreas Harsono denounced Jacobson’s detainment. “Journalists should be able to work in Indonesia without fear of arrest,” Harsono told VICE. “The Palangkaraya Immigration Office’s treatment of Philip is a worrying sign that the government is attempting to silence journalists, who play an essential role in any healthy democracy.”

In a statement, the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club also expressed concern over the arrest.

“While we of course urge all foreign journalists visiting Indonesia to ensure they follow immigration rules, if a journalist is simply attending meetings or happens to be present during a news event this should not be cause for punitive action or detention,” the group said.

Although Indonesian law guarantees press freedom on paper, the reality is far more problematic.

According to Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index, Indonesia lags in 124th place out of 180 countries. Violations of press freedom are rampant in Indonesia: journalists have been barred from entering high-conflict areas like West Papua, the culture of impunity remains strong, and journalists regularly experience violence.

According to data from the Indonesian Journalist’s Alliance, at least 64 cases of violence against reporters took place in 2018.