Free Speech Groups Call for Release of U.S. Environmental Journalist Arrested in Indonesia

Amy Gunia

Free speech advocates are calling for the release of an American journalist for an environmental news site after he was jailed on this week in Indonesia on allegations that he violated the conditions of his visa, according to his employer.

Philip Jacobson, an editor for the non-profit U.S.-based conservation and environmental science platform Mongabay, was traveling on a business visa in the city of Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan province, on the island of Borneo when he was detained on Dec. 17, according to a post on Mongabay’s website. He had attended a dialogue between Central Kalimantan’s parliament and an indigenous rights group, the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), the day prior.

Jacobson, 30, was released after his initial detention, but ordered to remain in the city while authorities investigated. On Tuesday, police arrested him.

His lawyer Aryo Nugroho, the head of Indonesian Legal Aid, said that the case appears to focus on his use of a business visa instead of a journalism visa, and did not appear to be motivated by any particular article published by Mongabay, according to the New York Times.

Rhett Butler, Mongabay’s founder and CEO, said in a statement that they are making every effort to comply with immigration authorities.

“I am surprised that immigration officials have taken such punitive action against Philip for what is an administrative matter,” Butler said in the statement.

His arrest prompted an outpouring of criticism from rights activists.

Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) said it was likely provincial authorities behind Jacobson’s arrest, not the central government.

“By detaining him, Central Kalimantan officers are displaying a zeal that fuels suspicion on their real agenda,” Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, tells TIME. “The journalist’s arrest is clearly tantamount to intimidation, and they wouldn’t have acted otherwise had they wanted to stifle the voice of reporters who cover environmental scandals.”

Veronica Koman, an Indonesian human rights lawyer called Jacobson a “fighter for environment and human rights” in a post on Twitter.

Jacobson has written articles for Mongabay that alleged one of Indonesia’s largest paper producers was tied to deforestation in Borneo (a claim the company denied.) His work also scrutinized Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s track record on environmental issues.

“We presume that the arrest of Jacobson is related to Mongabay reporting on cases of environmental crime and criminalization of Indigenous Peoples,” AMAN, the indigenous rights groups, said in a statement. “The arrest of Philip Jacobson while carrying out his journalistic works posed a serious threat upon press freedom, democracy and human rights in Indonesia.”

Some activists said that Jacobson’s arrest is an ominous sign for the state of the country’s democratic values.

“Indonesian officials often talk about its being a democracy. But democracy will not thrive without quality journalism and restricting foreign journalists is not a good sign,” Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch, tells TIME. “It shows there’s a problem on the development of democracy and human rights in Indonesia.”

“The longer journalist Philip Jacobson remains held in detention, the more damage Indonesia does to its reputation as a democracy with a free press,” Shawn Crispin, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ senior Southeast Asia representative, said in a statement.

In a video posted on Twitter, Jacobson thanked those speaking out on his behalf. “I really, really, really, really, really appreciate everything everyone is doing for me. It really touches my heart,” Jacobson said in a video posted on Mongabay’s Twitter account on Friday.

Jacobson faces up to five years in prison on charges of violating the 2011 immigration law, according to Mongabay.

Read More: An Intense Climate of Fear Has Been Triggered.’ Press Freedom a Rising Concern in 2019, Report Says

The Indonesian government government has pledged to ease visa restrictions for foreign journalists since Widodo took office in 2014. But, critics say he has failed to keep his promise, and his presidency has been marked by serious press freedom violations, especially strict restrictions on media access to West Papua, which was gripped by unrest in 2019.

In 2014, two French journalists spent two and a half months in jail for filming a documentary in West Papua while in the country on tourist visas, and the following year two British journalists were handed a similar sentence for making a film while on tourist visas. Others have been deported for failing to obtain journalist visas.

Indonesia ranked 124 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Index.