Indonesia: US journalist arrested for alleged visa violation

Philip Jacobson, an editor of environmental science website Mongabay, was arrested on January 21, 2020, on suspicion of “visa violations” in Indonesia. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its Indonesian affiliate Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) condemn the arrest of Philip Jacobson, call for his immediate release and for charges to be dropped.

Philip Jacobson. Photo courtesy of Mongabay.

On January 21, 2020, Indonesian authorities took the US journalist into custody, transferring him to Palangkaraya State Prison in Central Kalimantan. He is accused of breaching Article 122 of the 2011 Immigration Law. If found guilty, he faces up to five years imprisonment.

Jacobson’s arrest is understood to be related to an alleged violation of business visa conditions and followed his earlier detainment by immigration authorities in Palangkaraya, Borneo, in December 2019. Here, he had been attending a meeting between the Central Kalimantan Provincial Parliament and the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), an Indonesian indigenous peoples’ human rights advocacy organisation.

Jacobson was detained and interrogated for four hours on December 17, 2019, before his release on condition he remain in Palangkaraya while the case was investigated. Immigration officers seized his passport.

His lawyer, Aryo Nugroho, said the case seemed to revolve around his use of a business visa during his visit, rather than a journalism visa. Jacobson’s letter of arrest dictated that he was “strongly alleged to commit a crime based on sufficient initial evidence”.

Jacobson is known for his robust investigative journalism. In his reports for Mongabay, he analysed the environmental track record of Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, and in 2018 also uncovered that Indonesian paper company Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) had deliberately concealed its ownership of PT Muara Sungai Landak, a company that deforested land. APP had earlier committed to stop deforestation under its Forest Conservation Policy in 2013.

AJI has reported that 53 cases of violence and at least five criminal cases against journalists occurred in 2019 alone.

AJI said: “The criminalisation of Jacobson is an excessive action . . . The immigration office had no authority to detain and treat him like a criminal offender following the allegation of violating an administrative matter”.

The IFJ said: “The detention of Jacobson is unjust and excessive. This appears to be a retaliatory attempt to silence media reporting on sensitive topics. Journalism is not a crime and we strongly condemn attempts to criminalise journalists in Indonesia.”

Update on January 28, 2020: Philip Jacobson was moved from prison to "city detention" on January 24, 2020. Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD said he would contact immigration authorities and recommend the deportation of Philip Jacobson as soon as possible. The immigration office is currently in possession of Philip's passport. The IFJ re-iterates its previous comments urging the authorities to drop the charges against Philip Jacobson.

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