Indonesian immigration authorities arrested an American journalist for alleged visa violations, officials and a lawyer said Wednesday, as press and human rights advocates suggested the charges could be linked to his coverage of environmental issues and land disputes.
Philip Jacobson, an editor with the environmental news site Mongabay.com, was arrested and jailed Tuesday in Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan province. He already had been barred from leaving the city for a month as authorities investigated his visa case, said Aryo Nugroho, director of the Palangkaraya Legal Aid Institute (LBH).
“His visa and passport were confiscated by the immigration authorities on Dec. 17,” Aryo told BenarNews.
Jacobson is accused of violating his visa terms by working as a journalist despite holding a visitor’s visa, the immigration department and Aryo said. A foreigner wishing to work in the media must obtain a separate journalist’s visa.
A spokesman for Indonesia’s Ministry of Law and Human Rights, said Jacobson was being questioned following his arrest.
“From our initial investigation, there were activities that should have not been carried out under his visa terms,” spokesman Arvin Gumilang told BenarNews.
Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett A. Butler questioned the legal action against Jacobson. The website describes itself as a U.S.-based platform specializing in reporting on environmental conservation and science news.
“We are supporting Philip in this on-going case and making every effort to comply with Indonesia’s immigration authorities,” Butler said. “I am surprised that immigration officials have taken such punitive action against Philip for what is an administrative matter.”
Jacobson arrived in Palangkaraya on Dec. 14 on a multiple-entry business visa to meet with the local chapter of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), which is advocating for local farmers in a land dispute, Mongabay said.
A day after Jacobson attended a meeting between the AMAN chapter and members of the Central Kalimantan parliament on Dec. 16, immigration officials confiscated his passport and put him under city arrest as he was about to catch a flight out of Palangkaraya, it said.
“He provided an explanation during the questioning and if he is deemed guilty, he apologizes. He just wants to be deported,” Aryo said.
Jacobson’s legal team has been in contact with the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, according to Aryo while embassy officials did not respond to a BenarNews request for comment.
Advocacy groups react
Word of the journalist’s arrest drew swift criticism from free press and human rights advocates.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called for Jacobson’s “immediate and unconditional release.”
“Philip Jacobson’s totally disproportionate arrest clearly amounts to intimidation,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, in a statement.
“The zeal that immigration officials have displayed in this case has fueled suspicion that the aim is to silence Jacobson, who has often visited Indonesia in the past decade and has covered several environmental scandals including cases of illegal deforestation on the island of Borneo,” he said.
A Human Rights Watch researcher in Indonesia said journalists should be free to work in Indonesia without fear of detention.
“Philip Jacobson’s treatment is a worrying sign that the government is cracking down on the kind of work that is essential to the health of Indonesian democracy,” researcher Andreas Harsono said.
Abdul Manan, chairman of the Alliance of Independent Journalists of Indonesia (AJI), called Jacobson’s detention excessive.
“If he was guilty, he should just be deported,” he said.
Climate of intimidation
Human rights activists had previously urged the government to stop what they said were growing physical and legal threats against activists and environmentalists.
In November, two activists who were involved in a land dispute between residents and a palm oil plantation company were found dead in North Sumatra province. Police have arrested at least five suspects in the case, including a palm oil executive who allegedly commissioned the killings.
Earlier this year, unidentified attackers torched the house of the West Nusa Tenggara province director of the environmental group Walhi. Members said they suspect the arson was in retaliation for the group’s work.
In a report released at the end of 2018, Walhi said that at least 32 activists were victims of “trumped up” charges, which included incitement, destruction of property and spreading communism. Meanwhile, at least 555 cases of forest and plantation disputes were reported to the government, but little action has been taken.
In 2018, Indonesia’s Supreme Court sentenced environmentalist Hari Budiawan to four years in prison after finding him guilty of spreading communism during a 2017 anti-mining protest in in East Java province.
In October 2019, activists criticized police in North Sumatra for dropping an investigation into the death of lawyer Golfrid Siregar, who had sued the local government on behalf of Walhi over a China-backed hydropower project.
Police said the lawyer died after he crashed his motorcycle while driving under the influence.