American journalist for conservation website arrested in Indonesia over visa issue

Philip Jacobson was detained on Dec 17, 2019, and ordered to remain in the city while authorities investigated his case, according to an article on Mongabay's website. PHOTO: MONGABAY WEBSITE

BANGKOK (NEW YORK TIMES) - An American journalist whose work for a conservation website exposed environmental degradation and corporate malfeasance in Indonesia has been jailed by the country's immigration authorities on suspicion that he violated the conditions of his visa, his attorney said on Wednesday (Jan 22).

Philip Jacobson, an editor for the environmental science website Mongabay, was travelling on a business visa in the city of Palangkaraya, capital of Central Kalimantan province on Borneo, when he was detained on Dec 17 and ordered to remain in the city while the authorities investigated his case, according to an article on Mongabay's website.

On Tuesday, the immigration authorities took him into custody and imprisoned him in the main jail in Palangkaraya, said his lawyer, Mr Aryo Nugroho, the head of Indonesian Legal Aid in the city.

Mr Aryo said the case appears to focus on Jacobson's use of a business visa instead of a journalism visa during his travels in the country and does not appear to be motivated by concern over a particular article produced by Mongabay.

"He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," Mr Aryo said.

Jacobson, 30, was detained after he attended a meeting between the Central Kalimantan Provincial Parliament and the local chapter of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago, which is Indonesia's largest indigenous rights group.

As a reporter for Mongabay, Jacobson wrote articles about a paper company that illicitly set up a shell company to secretly clear forest land, and another that analysed the environmental record of the country's President, Mr Joko Widodo.

The American faces up to five years in prison if found to have violated immigration law. At this point, the best outcome for Jacobson would appear to be his quick deportation, Mr Aryo said.

A letter of arrest dated on Tuesday said that it was necessary to take Jacobson into custody for further investigation since he was "strongly alleged to commit a crime based on sufficient initial evidence."

The letter was signed by immigration officials and Jacobson.

Mongabay, which covers environmental issues around the world, said that it was working to free him.

"We are supporting Philip in this ongoing case and making every effort to comply with Indonesia's immigration authorities," said Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett A. Butler, who is based in the United States. "I am surprised that immigration officials have taken such punitive action against Philip for what is an administrative matter."

Mr Arvin Gumilang, a spokesman for the immigration department, said Jacobson had visited Indonesia several times on a business visa.

The immigration office in Palangkaraya, Mr Arvin said, received a report in December that a foreign journalist was interviewing people.

The department investigated and found that Jacobson did not have a journalism visa, a requisite for foreign reporters working in the country, he said.

Mr Arvin said he did not know whether any information from the interviews had been published.

Jacobson, he said, was not detained because of any articles published by Mongabay.

The executive committee of the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club issued a statement expressing 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 organisation said.

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