Joe Cochrane – Indonesia's arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of an American environmental journalist earlier this month, for the "crime" of attending a public legislative hearing on indigenous land rights in Borneo, would be considered uncalled for, in democratic countries, at least.
Philip Jacobson, an editor for international environmental website Mongabay, was arrested on December 18 and then tossed into a detention centre on January 21, after being spotted at a legislative meeting in Borneo's Central Kalimantan province, the capital of which is Palangkaraya.
The case is the latest instance of a Westerner being imprisoned or blacklisted on allegations and court convictions ranging from "visa violations" to "espionage" and "hurting Indonesia".
Is it xenophobia? Well, President Joko Widodo claims the country is "open for business" to Western businesspeople and journalists alike – but given recent events, who among them may end up behind bars for no reason?
Foreign journalists seem to be a prime target. In the case of Jacobson, he was not reporting, taking photographs or even notes, he said. But he had been trailed back to his accommodation, questioned, put under city arrest, and then later taken into custody with a threat of a five-year prison sentence for visa violations.
Jacobson spent Christmas and New Year alone. He asked the press not to report on his situation until there was clarity, as that would only make matters worse.
In an email to the Post just before his arrest, Jacobson said: "I'm on a business visa. Some intel photographed me at a [council] meeting. The next day, right before I was about to leave Palangkaraya, a couple of immigration officers came to my guest house. I'm trying to explain to them that the local Mongabay contributor is going to write the article, and I'm just going to translate it."
After a meeting with US Ambassador Joseph R Donovan last week, Indonesian Security Minister Mahfud MD said Jacobson could still be investigated for alleged "espionage" or "drug trafficking" – claims that had previously not come up, and which have since been derided by Jakarta's expatriate community.
Jacobson's mobile phone has since been switched off and he has not responded to email messages.
Rhett A Butler, the founder and CEO of Mongabay, said Jacobson was still under "city arrest" in Palangkaraya and that "we're eager to see this issue resolved and Phil allowed to leave the city".
Given previous similar cases in recent years, that is not a guarantee – but Jacobson should at least consider himself lucky enough to no longer be in a prison cell.
In 2014, two French journalists were convicted of not having proper work visas and jailed for nearly three months in Jayapura, capital of Indonesia's Papua province. In 2015, two British journalists from National Geographic were jailed for three months on Batam Island for the same offence.
The Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club said it was concerned about the Widodo government's policies.
"While we of course urge all foreign journalists visiting Indonesia to ensure they follow immigration rules, if a journalist is simply attending meetings or happens to be present during a news event, this should not be cause for punitive action or detention," the club said in a statement.
According to Andreas Harsono, researcher for Human Rights Watch Indonesia, the core issue is Indonesia's 2011 immigration law, which he describes as "draconian" and passed by "paranoid legislators".
"It has a jail term as a punishment for foreign journalists, also for foreign researchers, when they do their jobs without appropriate visas," Harsono said.
"It could be used to criminalise a journalist and a researcher," he added, noting that prominent Australian and other international researchers have been denied entry into the country.
"The law considers anyone who does not have the appropriate visa to commit a crime. That act becomes not only an administrative matter, consequently with an administrative sanction, but could end up with a criminal prosecution," Harsono said.
It is not a secret that foreign journalists do enter Indonesia to work using tourist visas, because they have no other choice. Around the world, there are numerous visa requests pending with Indonesian embassies for months, including those of Western journalists already based in Jakarta trying to switch their visa status to work for a different media company. They never receive a reply.
There have been seemingly arbitrary blacklistings and deportations of Westerners. In May last year, one US man who was visiting Indonesia to see his teenage Indonesian-American children was detained by the State Intelligence Agency while cycling near a demonstration against the results of the presidential election.
He said he has since been blacklisted, having been turned back on a recent flight from the US, and cannot see his children again unless they meet him in another country.
Endy Bayuni, a prominent Indonesian journalist and former editor-in-chief of The Jakarta Post, chalks it up to a "xenophobia sentiment" against the West within the Indonesian government that spawned more than a decade ago and remains entrenched within Widodo's reformist administration.
"It's like, 'Foreigners, they are not welcome here. Their money is welcome, but not them'," he said.
Indonesia's visa process for foreign journalists wanting to report from here, or be based here, is in particular intriguing – or archaic, as many complain.
Any foreign journalist's request for a visa, either temporary or residency, must go through a weekly "clearing house" meeting of 18 ministries ranging from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, State Intelligence Agency and National Police, down to the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Ministry of Education.
In a not-so-obvious irony, approval or rejection can be arbitrary, Harsono noted, and take months.
"The clearing house system of consensus voting means any one person has veto power, which generally means that the opinion of the most paranoid person in the meeting carries the day," he said.