Arrest of Mongabay journalist adds to growing fear among environmental advocates in Indonesia

The detainment of 30 year-old Mongabay journalist Philip Jacobson on 21 January is the latest move by the Indonesian authorities to repress environmental activists and journalists, says human rights campaigners in the country.

Mongabay journalist Philip Jacobson
30 year-old Mongabay journalist Philip Jacobson was detained in Central Kalimantan on 17 December and formally arrested on 21 January for an alleged business visa violation. Image: Mongabay

A foreign environmental journalist has been arrested in Indonesia for an alleged visa violation.

American national Philip Jacobson, an editor for United States-headquartered environment news website Mongabay, has been detained in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, marking the latest blow for sustainability practitioners working in Southeast Asia’s most populous country.

Before his arrest, the award-winning journalist had attended a hearing between the Central Kalimantan parliament and the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago, a non-government organisation that campaigns for the rights of Indonesia’s indigenous people, and had attended a series of meetings with contacts.

He was arrested on 17 December, the day he was due to leave the country, for violating business visa restrictions. According to Mongabay, immigration officials seized his passport, interrogated him for four hours and insisted that he remained in Palangkaraya pending an investigation.

Philip Jacobson’s arrest is just the latest scandal amid Indonesia’s growing repression and persecution of environmental activists and journalists.

Usman Hamid, director, Amnesty International Indonesia

He was formally arrested on Tuesday, 21 January, and placed into custody. The 30 year-old journalist could get up to five years in prison.

Jacobson’s detainment is regarded by some observers to be the latest sign of Indonesia’s growing intolerance towards perceived interference in its environmental affairs.

“Philip Jacobson’s arrest is just the latest scandal amid Indonesia’s growing repression and persecution of environmental activists and journalists,” commented Usman Hamid, director of Amnesty International Indonesia

“His arrest will have a chilling effect on anyone seeking to expose similar abuses, and the country will be worse off for it,” said Hamid, who called the arrest “ unacceptable”, “arbitrary” and a threat to press freedom in Indonesia.

Jacobson’s detention comes two months after international green group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) had its field work licence cancelled, a move believed to be connected to WWF’s support of West Papua’s declaration to conserve its forests.

In September last year, Swiss NGO PanEco, a long-time opponent of a controversial dam in northern Sumatra that threatens a critically endangered orangutan species, came out in support of the dam, reportedly after the group was threatened to have its permit to operate in the country rescinded.

Other foreign NGOs and scientists working in Indonesia, who wish to remain anonymous, have told Eco-Business that they have experienced threats and intimidation, and feel unsafe working in the country. Some have left, and are now working remotely from neighbouring countries.

Andreas Harsono, a researcher for Human Rights Watch based in Jakarta, noted that Indonesia is currently experiencing a rise in the persecution of environmentalists, “ranging from journalists like Phil Jacobson to farmers to fishermen”, from Sumatra to Papua.

He noted that Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s government should pay more attention to human rights violations as the country attempts to balance economic development and sustainability.

Environmentalists play a very important role in balancing the presidential initiative [for development]. If not, we’re going to see unchecked development that will ruin the environment.

Andreas Harsono, researcher, Human Rights Watch

“Environmentalists play a very important role in balancing the presidential initiative [for development], he said. “If not, we’re going to see unchecked development that will ruin the environment and people’s lives [in Indonesia].”

Tightening freedoms for environment workers has been more dangerous for homegrown practitioners. Indonesian campaigner Golfrid Siregar, who has opposed the controversial Batang Toru hydropower plant in Sumatra, died in suspicious circumstances in October. Siregar had been working on a law suit to force the local government to revoke the environmental permit for the dam.

Also in October, the office of a human rights group and a coffee shop popular among activists were bombed in Medan, the provincial capital of Sumatra. In November, two journalists were murdered on an oil palm plantation in Sumatra, allegedly by contract killers hired by the plantation owner.

Hamid of Amnesty International added that Jacobson’s arrest reflected a general disregard for human rights issues from the Indonesian government, which he noted had installed military generals implicated in past human rights abuses in key cabinet positions.

Rhett Butler, found of Mongabay, told Eco-Business that the apparent increasing difficulties for foreign researchers, journalists, and civil society workers operating in Indonesia is surprising, since the country is “simultaneously trying to position itself as an attractive place for foreign investment.”

Speculating on the reasons for the clampdown, Butler said a number of factors could be at play. “It might be related to international criticism over [forest] fires, conflict over resources, and the dispute between the European Union [EU] and Indonesia over biofuel mandates.”

The EU has announced that it will ban the use of palm oil for the production of biofuels, citing deforestation in the tropical countries where it is grown as the reason for the mandate. Indonesia is the world’s largest palm oil producer.

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