Though journalism is often celebrated for its role in holding governments and businesses accountable, the power of the press certainly doesn’t come without consequences. Following scathing reports, enterprises often decrease in value and governments get defensive. But perhaps most importantly, journalists fear for their lives as bad actors make the profession sometimes unsafe. In 2018, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported over 50 journalists were killed and 251 were imprisoned. Further, environmental journalism in specific is “one of the most dangerous” fields in the industry, according to The Guardian.
And this seems to be the case again with the recent jailing of an award-winning environmental journalist, Philip Jacobson. This time, the scene is set in Indonesia, where a journalist was arrested for allegedly violating his visa. Just today, Jacobson was deported, after six weeks of detainment in Indonesia.
Who Is Philip Jacobson and What Did He Do To Get Detained?
Jacobson, 30, is an editor at Mongabay, a nonprofit environmental science and conservation news outlet. Jacobson has covered several stories centered around deforestation and land grants in Indonesia.
He was first detained after attending a hearing between local lawmakers and the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN).
Indonesia’s Chief Security Minister Mohammad Mahfud MD told The Jakarta Post that Jacobson violated terms by meeting with civil rights organizations and local parliament.
“It’s outside his purpose to write news,” Mahfud said.
Why Is Environmental Journalism Such a Dangerous Field for Writers?
While Jacobson’s story has been making several headlines, it is not unique. Environmental journalists are subject to risks of death, assault, intimidation, lawsuits, harassment, exile — the list goes on.
This is because environmental journalism often exposes environmental devastation wrought by government or corporate corruption and greed.
“Environmental issues involve some of the greatest abuses of power in the world and some of the greatest of concentrations of power in the world,” said Bruce Shapiro, Director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.
“I’m hard put to think of a category of investigative reporters who are routinely dealing with more dangerous actors. Investigative reporting on the environment can be as dangerous a beat as reporting on narco smuggling,” he added.
In the last decade, 13 journalists have died reporting environmental news. The CPJ is still investigating 16 more deaths over the past decade. They say there could be up to 29 cases of murder.
There’s Reason to Believe That Jacobson’s Arrest Was Political
Amnesty International Indonesia’s Executive Director hinted concerns that Jacobson’s arrest was political.
“The charge against Philip comes at a time of when Indonesia is seeing a rise in violent attacks against and persecution of environmentalists and journalists,” Usman Hamid said in a statement.
“We are deeply concerned that the real reason behind the criminal charges for Jacobson is not merely a visa violation bus his work for Mongabay,” he added.
Backlash From the Journalism Community and the Importance of Free Speech
Last week, Jacobson and his colleagues received an award for their “excellence in environmental journalism” from Switzerland’s Fetisov Journalism Awards.
Since then, there has been an uproar of cries for Jacobson’s release. Journalists, human rights lawyers, civil rights groups, and activists alike have called for justice.
Award judge Aidan White said Jacobson’s work was “in recognition of terrific investigative journalism on environmental news.”
Jacobson’s arrest served as a “shocking reminder” of the dangers on the job, said White, President of the Ethical Journalism Network
“The fact that he was unable to attend the ceremony to receive his prize because of harassment by authorities is a shocking reminder of the risks journalists take to tell important stories and to expose wrongdoing,” he said.
Questionable Treatment Towards Jacobson
AMAN called his arrest a “serious threat upon press freedom, democracy, and human rights in Indonesia.”
Prior to today, Jacobson was under “city arrest.” This means Jacobson did not have his passport and couldn’t leave the city of Palangkaraya. Based on Indonesia’s immigration law, Jacobson could have faced up to five years in prison for allegedly abusing his business visa. During this time, Mahfud added investigation was underway to see if Jacobson had committed any other crimes, like drug trafficking.
However, despite his long detention, Jacobson still wants to return “at the earliest opportunity.” Next time, he plans to apply for a journalist visa. Upon his deportation, Jacobson described himself being both “relieved” to not face a five-year sentence, but “deeply saddened” to leave the country.
“Indonesia is a magnificent country with a big heart, full of some of the funniest and most generous people on Earth,I am fortunate to have made some of my dearest friendships with people from around the archipelago,” he told Mongabay.
The War on Climate Needs Environmental Journalism
Not only is the environment under attack right now, but so are the people exposing this hard-hitting truth.
Journalists willing to risk their lives and safety to expose corruption and environmental devastation. But there are barriers in the way of getting their message across to the public.
The war on climate change is one worth fighting for. But nobody has the power to hold governments and businesses accountable, progress can’t be achieved. And that’s where journalists can help.