Concern Grows in Indonesia over Environmentalist’s Arrest

Detention the latest in growing antagonism to environmentalists, journalists, critics say

Concern is deepening over the detention in Indonesia of Philip Jacobson, an award-winning editor for the environmental science news outlet Mongabay, who has been under house arrest for more than a month over an alleged visa violation and threatened with as much as five years in jail. He was formally arrested on January 21.

Mongabay, an international nonprofit environmental science news organization, has been giving the government and the oil palm plantation industry-particular fits, with multiple hard-hitting, deeply detailed series of articles on illegal land conversion, the massive fires that regularly sweep primary forest, and government corruption.

The latest one, which ran in December, just a few days before the 30-year-old Jacobson was detained, alleged that permits for a multi-billion-dollar oil palm plantation in Papua were faked to lead to the criminal clear-cutting of 83 sq km of rainforest. However, his lawyer, Aryo Nugroho, told reporters the case appears to focus on his use of a business visa instead of a journalist one, and that the arrest doesn’t seem to be driven by a particular article.

Previously, Mongabay activists produced a 22-month investigation of corruption in land deals – complete with voluminous pictures – in conjunction with several local organizations that was nominated for several prizes, titled “The Secret Deal to Destroy Paradise” in 2018.

The arrest has also sparked growing concern that Indonesia is cracking down on foreign press coverage, particularly on environmental coverage. According to a Mongabay statement, officials rebuffed an inquiry into his detention from the US Embassy in Jakarta.

The Indonesian Alliance of Independent Journalists issued a 2019 report documenting 53 incidents of abuse against journalists, including five criminal cases. “We think this is over the top because they’re using an administrative issue to justify someone’s arrest,” the alliance’s chairman, Abdul Manan told BBC Indonesia.

Human Rights Watch recently issued a report documenting rising violence against activists and environmentalists amid a growing sense that critical voices are being suppressed. One source said it is getting more difficult to obtain press visas.

Besides the New York-based Committee to protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch, local organizations protesting Jacobson’s detention are the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club, the Alliance of Independent Journalists, the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago and the Indonesian Forum for the Environment.

Mongabay, in a statement, said Jacobson was arrested in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan on December 17 after attending a hearing between the Central Kalimantan parliament and the local chapter of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago, Indonesia’s largest indigenous rights advocacy group.

The day he was due to leave, according to the statement, immigration authorities seized his passport, interrogated him for four hours and ordered him to remain in the city. He was told he faces charges of violating immigration laws. Immigration officers appeared at Jacobson’s guesthouse room on January 21 and instructed him to pack his belongings and come with them. He was taken into custody and transferred to a detention center.

“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. “I am surprised that immigration officials have taken such punitive action against Philip for what is an administrative matter.”

Jacobson originally came to Indonesia as a young reporter on the Jakarta Globe, but left the paper and has continued to split his time between Indonesia and the United States, working as a Mongabay editor and reporter. He is well known in press and environmental circles in Indonesia.

“Journalists and people employed by journalism organizations should be free to work in Indonesia without fear of arbitrary detention,” said Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch. “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.”