Journalist who graduated from Northwestern is jailed in Indonesia after alleged visa violation

Philip Jacobson was arrested Tuesday on the island of Borneo by Indonesian authorities.

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Philip Jacobson

Philip Jacobson

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An environmental journalist who grew up in Lincoln Park and graduated from Northwestern University was arrested Tuesday by Indonesian authorities for allegedly violating his visa. 

Philip Jacobson, 30, was working as an editor for the California-based environmental science website Mongabay when he was arrested in the city of Palangkaraya on the island of Borneo.

The case against him centers on Jacobson’s use of a business visa instead of a journalism visa, Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett Butler told the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday. 

Jacobson was first detained and interrogated Dec. 17, after attending a hearing at parliament between government officials and the local chapter of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago, Indonesia’s largest indigenous rights advocacy group, Butler said.

Authorities released him but ordered him not to leave the city pending the outcome of their investigation, Butler said.

”Phil was at the meeting to learn about the issues; he was invited. He was working with a local journalist who is doing a story for Mongabay about small farmers using fire to clear land, which can cause severe air pollution,” Butler said.

”Phil wasn’t on a specific assignment and as far as we know there are no allegations of him doing journalistic interviews, but there could be some debate over what constitutes journalism. I think it would be more clear-cut if he was out in the field interviewing people. It’s kind of a gray zone, but it certainly doesn’t warrant arrest,” Butler said.

Butler didn’t know why Jacobson didn’t have a journalism visa, but said such visas are very hard to get.

Jacobson’s father, Chicago architect Randy Jacobson, said the arrest does not seem like a punitive measure against Philip Jacobson for anything he was working on or has written.

“I think that they’re treating him all right,” he said, noting his son is fluent in Bahasa, the native language.

“So he can navigate the prison. It’s not a summer camp, the food is inedible, but it’s safe. The authorities don’t want anything to happen to him,” he said.

Randy Jacobson is getting his information second hand; he hasn’t been able to speak directly to his son since his arrest.

“It’s hard, I sit in bed thinking about my kid in a jail cell facing a potential five-year sentence for this, which is crazy,” he said. 

“We don’t know why they decided to prosecute him like this, it should be an administrative issue in which the worst thing that happens is you get deported.” 

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley and Sen. Dick Durbin have been instrumental in getting the State Department involved in the case, Randy Jacobson said. 

Philip Jacobson attended the University of Chicago Lab Schools before graduating from Northwestern in 2011 with a degree in journalism. Jacobson’s first job after graduating was with the Jakarta Globe.

“It’s a very unusual situation for them to take this very severe approach, it’s not commensurate with what they’d accused him of doing,” Butler said. 

Jacobson splits time between Southeast Asia, the United States and Indonesia.

“We’re very proud of him. It’s not an easy business anymore, and he’s been a working journalist since he graduated and were very proud of the type of articles he’s been writing about,” Randy Jacobson said. 

Jacobson is being represented by a local Indonesian attorney.

“Mongabay is picking up attorney fees and other costs. So far, we haven’t had to go out of pocket,” Randy Jacobson said, adding he’s received several offers from major international law firms interested in taking the case pro bono.

“That’s something we’re trying to figure out right now,” he said.

Philip Jacobson turns 31 on Sunday. 

“Phil’s been fully cooperative with authorities, he hasn’t been adversarial at all and we held off on saying anything publicly for over a month,” Butler said. “It was only when he was put in jail that we went public.”

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