Liam Scott, Washington – Indonesian security officials on Wednesday attempted to block a White House pool reporter from covering the summit between the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in Jakarta.
Indonesian security officials surrounded Patsy Widakuswara, an Indonesian American and VOA's White House bureau chief, who was acting as the pool reporter for U.S. print and radio media covering the event.
As the press pool was ushered out of a meeting between U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, VOA's Widakuswara called out two questions – to Harris about whether the U.S. is close to reaching a deal on Indonesian nickel, and, in Indonesian, to Widodo about whether he was disappointed that U.S. President Joe Biden was not present at the summit.
Indonesian officials then physically blocked Widakuswara, as officials from the vice president's office tried to reason with the Indonesian authorities.
"It was tense, but I didn't feel anxious or panicked or anything like that, because I knew that I was just doing my job," Widakuswara told VOA. "And I also knew that the VP's office would stand by me. I just stood my ground."
Outside, Widakuswara was surrounded by Indonesian security officials, who told her to leave because she shouted and that she was banned from entering any other events, the reporter said. She also described the incident in a series of posts on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
"There are moments where shouting is just not appropriate. This was not one of them," she said.
According to Widakuswara, one official said in Indonesian, "Until Armageddon comes, I will not allow her in."
As a pool reporter, Widakuswara was among a limited number of journalists selected to cover the event and share their observations with the rest of the media corps who were not in attendance. Widakuswara said she was worried that if Indonesian officials did not budge, she would not be able to send pool reports to fellow reporters.
But U.S. officials came to Widakuswara's defense.
"It is a source of pride for us as American diplomats and civil servants to stand up for the freedom of the press overseas, and as part of that, for access for the traveling White House press corps," Dean Lieberman, deputy national security adviser to the vice president, told VOA in a statement.
U.S. officials continued to press the Indonesians to let Widakuswara in, saying Harris would not enter the summit room until the entire press pool, including Widakuswara, was allowed inside.
"That person is absolutely critical to be in there because they're not just representing their own organization, they're representing many news organizations," Steve Herman, VOA's chief national correspondent and former White House bureau chief, said about the role of pool reporters.
After Sung Kim, the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, approached the brewing standoff, the Indonesian officials finally let Widakuswara into the room where the U.S.-ASEAN summit was taking place.
"Securing sufficient press access remains a top priority for the Vice President whenever and wherever we travel. We may not always answer shouted questions, but a free and independent press is a core tenet of our democracy, and we carry that with us wherever we go," Lieberman added in the statement.
Josh Rogin, a columnist at The Washington Post, witnessed the incident, which he said wasn't a good look for Jakarta.
"The entire point of the U.S.-ASEAN summit is to celebrate shared values, and if the host isn't standing up for those values and representing those values, it kind of undermines the entire endeavor," Rogin told VOA.
Other reporters turned to social media to voice their support for Widakuswara.
"It is a relief to see this current administration understanding and defending the pool reporting system, compared to some situations that occurred in previous administrations," added Herman, a White House Correspondents' Association member.
In a statement to VOA, Rosan Roeslani, Indonesian ambassador to the United States, said, "We regret the incident involving Ms. Patsy Widakuswara and understand the concerns raised, while emphasizing our commitment to press freedom."
He added that the event in question was a photo spray, not a press conference, and that "shouting and loud voices raised security concerns."
Widakuswara disputed this characterization. "There have been sprays of Widodo and Biden bilats where we were all shouting questions, and no one was reprimanded," she said. "As American journalists, we have the right to question leaders when we see them."
In his statement, Roeslani said, "We remain dedicated to upholding press freedom and will work on clarifying and adhering to event-specific protocols to prevent future misunderstandings or disruptions."
Didier Saugy, executive director of the National Press Club in Washington, said the incident was unacceptable. "Everybody should have the freedom to ask questions," he told VOA.
In a statement to VOA, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said the agency is concerned by this incident and will contact the Indonesian government to address it.
"A free and independent press is a core institution of healthy democracies and is vital for ensuring electorates can make informed decisions and hold government officials accountable," the spokesperson said. "The United States condemns threats, harassment, and violence targeting journalists and media workers."
Indonesia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately reply to VOA's email requesting comment.
Widakuswara said she was grateful for the support of the vice president's team and the U.S. Embassy staff.
Born and raised in Indonesia, Widakuswara got her start as a journalist in the Southeast Asian country.
Returning to her hometown on board Air Force Two with Harris to cover the summit "was a proud immigrant moment for me," Widakuswara, who now has U.S. citizenship, told VOA. "I'm very proud of my Indonesian heritage."
Out of 180 countries, Indonesia ranks 108 in terms of press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. Press freedom in the country has increasingly come under attack in recent years.
"While I am and will always be a proud Indonesian as much as I am a proud American, I know which tradition of freedom of the press I prefer," Widakuswara wrote in a social media post.
The incident put a slight damper on the trip for Widakuswara, she told VOA.
"It does sadden me that this is the way that Indonesia treats its press," she said. "And I also don't like being the story. I don't think any reporter likes being the story."