It is always risky for a foreigner to uncover evidence of wrongdoing while visiting a host country and even more so if the foreigner is a journalist. Philip Jacobson, age 30 and an employee of environmental news provider Mongabay, was arrested on Borneo Island for alleged visa violations related to his writings.

An American, Jacobson had entered Indonesia using a business visa for a series of meetings. On Dec. 17, the day of his departure, Indonesian immigration authorities confiscated his passport and ordered him to remain in the city pending an investigation, according to a statement issued by Mongabay. He was formally arrested on Jan. 21.

Jacobson’s business in Indonesia was to attend a hearing between the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), a rights group, and the local parliament, the statement said.

The wrongdoing he uncovered in his role as a journalist with Mongabay was contained in his environmentally-related stories. Some stories contained allegations that companies in Indonesia used falsified permits to clear out an area of rainforest described as “vast” in the easternmost region of Papua.

Environmental issues present a major challenge for Indonesia. The country stretches over 2,800 kilometers (1,740 miles) along the equator from Aceh in the west to Papua in the east. According to an April 2019 report by Aljazeera, the culprits are deforestation to clear land for palm oil production, mining, and erosion. In 2017, floods caused by these activities killed 343 people and displaced 2.5 million from the country’s population of about 274 million.

Jakarta, the country's capital with nearly 11 million people, is sinking faster than any other city on the planet, as much as 20cm annually caused by drops in groundwater levels. About 40% of Jakarta is now below sea level, the Aljazeera article said.

There is one environmental movement in the country called Golongan Hutan (Golhut), or Forest Group that is trying to raise some awareness to the problem, but they are vexed by corruption, particularly in the area of forestry where bribes are common and law enforcement is weak.  

Jacobson is accused of violating his visa conditions due to his reporting activities in Palangkaraya, in Central Kalimantan. His lawyer, Aryo Nugroho, said his client could face up to five years in prison.

One Indonesian researcher at Human Rights Watch, Andreas Harsono, believes that immigration authorities were acting excessively in seeking to prosecute Jacobson. He said, “Journalism is clearly not a crime. This case is an administrative matter, a visa problem, not a criminal one.”

Jacobson’s employer, Mongabay, issued a statement from Rhett A. Butler, its CEO and founder, that the company would support Jacobson and make every effort to comply with Indonesian immigration authorities.

Officials at Indonesia's Immigration Directorate General did not respond to requests for comment.