Reading news reports on what had befallen an American citizen working for the environmental news portal Mongabay, one can only feel a sense of deja vu.
The detention of a journalist, and a foreigner to boot, on charges of “illegal journalistic activities” would have been commonplace under the autocratic rule of President Suharto.
Today we are more than two decades down the road of democracy after deposing the Smiling General who held Indonesia under an iron grip, yet Philip Jacobius, a visiting editor of environmental news portal Mongabay, was officially detained by the immigration office in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan on January 21, 2020.
The official reason for detaining him was that he was suspected of a visa violation. If he was guilty of that then it is fair enough to deport him. After all, visa violations are misdemeanors rather than crimes.
Jacobius, according to Immigration officials, conducted journalistic activities that were inconsistent with the conditions imposed by the business visa he held. As such they have decided to put him on city detention, barring him from leaving Palangkaraya, from December 17, 2019 more than a month from today.
Jacobius was slapped with the city detention the day after he had attended a meeting between representatives of the Traditional Farmers’ Solidarity (SPT) and the Nusantara Alliance of Customary Societies (AMAN), and the Central Kalimantan Province Legislative Council.
Jacobius was indeed in Palangkaraya in relation to a planned story on land conflicts between farmers and corporations, Aryo Nugroho Waluyo, a lawyer with the Palangkaraya Office of the Legal Aid Institute (LBH) was quoted in the media as saying. The meeting with the lawmakers was over the criminalization of farmers.
The severity of Jacobius’s punishment does not fit his wrongdoing which is at most an administrative violation. This mismatch makes the public wonder if the powerful business interests in natural resource-rich Central Kalimantan had a role in his detention.
Mongabay has clearly also not endeared itself with many in Central Kalimantan over its reporting of the massive forest and ground fires that annually plague the province, but also on the issue of deforestation, environmental degradation and land conflicts.
As such Mongabay is perceived to be a hindrance to business as usual for these interests and the officials they deal with. Sure, like many journalistic organizations, they may not get their facts right all the time and sometimes they may appear as being driven to persecute the players in the forestry industry.
If Mongabay got their reporting wrong then the proper way to respond is to use the defamation laws against them through a court of law as the arbiter.
Most of the time, however, Mongabay gets its stories right and giving them the leeway to act professionally is important if Indonesia hopes to progress and grow in such a way that we balance the needs of the environment with its people – regardless of whether the forestry players like them or not.
This is important because without professional reporting many incidents of graft, corruption and abuse – and they are legion in Indonesia – get swept under the carpet. Some honest reporting will inform Jokowi and his government who is hampering their aim to attract more investment and spur growth for the country.
Especially now then Indonesia is struggling to draw investment amid the more competitive environments offered by other countries in the region.
This case should also provide a momentum for the government of President Joko Widodo to put actions into words. He has so far fallen on his promise to lift current access restrictions to a number of regions in Indonesia for foreigners, especially journalists.
Investment is always drawn to a democratic and more liberal setting, and if the rights of the public to comprehensive and objective information is curtailed, including by restricting access or reporting, other countries in the region stands to benefit from our loss. Indonesia’s image abroad has already suffered enough from its deteriorating record on tolerance toward minorities. Let not it suffer another black mark with the disproportionate punishment of journalists.