Ahmad Syamsudin, Jakarta – Indonesia's image as a free-press country got dinged this week when a Voice of America reporter traveling with the U.S. vice president was temporarily barred from covering ASEAN summit meetings after shouting questions, local journalists and press advocates said.
Reporter Patsy Widakuswara was allowed back in after U.S. officials intervened, and an Indonesian official later apologized for the incident, according to the journalist's own account of events.
"There are moments where shouting is just not appropriate. This was not one of them," Widakuswara, who grew up in Jakarta, said in a video posted on social media.
The incident could damage Indonesia's diplomatic reputation, said Aloysius Budi Kurniawan ("Wawan"), an editor at Kompas Daily and advocate for media independence.
"It should not have happened at the ASEAN summit, which should have been a dignified stage for Indonesia's diplomacy," Wawan told BenarNews.
"The security officers' action was out of line. The questions that Patsy asked were reasonable."
Security should have been briefed on how to deal with journalists who had already been screened physically, another Jakarta-based editor said.
"Unless her loud voice shatters the lights, there is no reason to exclude her from the event," Muhammad Rusmadi, an editor at the outlet Rakyat Merdeka, joked to BenarNews.
Widakuswara, the White House correspondent for VOA, a U.S government-funded broadcaster, said she yelled questions to Indonesian President Joko Widodo and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris as the press was being ushered out of their bilateral meeting on Wednesday.
The questions were about a possible deal on Indonesian nickel and U.S. President Joe Biden's decision not to attend the ASEAN summit, Widakuswara wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
Neither leader answered. But an Indonesian official pointed at her and angrily told security to get her name, Widakuswara said in the thread on X.
"Outside, I was immediately surrounded by Indonesian security who told me to get out because I had shouted. They said I am banned from entering any other events. They blocked me, placed their hands on me, one female officer leaned her body against me," she said.
Outside the summit hall, officials blocked her again, with one saying, "Until Armageddon comes, I will not allow her in."
U.S. officials. including the ambassador to Indonesia, insisted she be allowed to enter, with the Indonesian security officials agreeing on condition that she not shout questions again.
"At that moment... I had no choice but to say OK because people were shouting with their hands up in the air, and also because I heard that the VP was steps away."
Later, Widakuswara said, an Indonesian officer from the Foreign Ministry's diplomatic security apologized.
The Jakarta branch of the Alliance of Independent Journalists condemned the actions of the security personnel, saying it was an attempt to obstruct journalistic work.
"The actions of security officers and Indonesian officials by expelling and allegedly verbally intimidating a journalist damaged Indonesia's image as a democracy that protects and guarantees a safe space for journalists to carry out their journalistic duties," the alliance told BenarNews.
But some cautioned against over-analyzing the incident. "It's possible that it was only a matter of protocol," said Bernadetta Febriana, a journalist for the weekly magazine GATRA.
While acknowledging that Indonesian-born Widakuswara was treated rather harshly, Bernadetta said "not every American practice is good."
"What is normal in America may not apply in Indonesia," she told BenarNews.
Indonesian Ambassador to the U.S. Rosan Roeslani defended the security officers' action, saying the event was a photo session, and shouting and loud noises could cause security concerns.
Nevertheless, the government regrets the incident, he said.
"We remain dedicated to upholding press freedom and will try to clarify and follow the specific protocols for events to prevent misunderstandings or disruptions in the future," VOA quoted Rosan as saying on Wednesday.
The Jakarta incident was not Widakuswara's first run-in with officials. She became part of a controversy with the Trump administration in 2021 when she was removed from the White House beat after questioning then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The incident was widely condemned and viewed as an anomaly by press observers in the United States. VOA reinstated Widakuswara in the beat weeks later after a change in its leadership.
She suggested in a social media post that she valued the press freedom tradition of the U.S. more.
"I am and will always be a proud Indonesian as much as I am a proud American, but I know which tradition of freedom of the press I prefer," she wrote.
[Tria Dianti and Dandy Koswaraputra in Jakarta contributed to the report.]