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Indonesia detains American journalist over visa regulations

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — An American journalist is facing up to five years in an Indonesian jail and a fine on charges of violating immigration regulations, a lawyer and officials said Wednesday.

Philip Jacobson of California was detained Tuesday in Palangkaraya city on Borneo island. He is accused of conducting journalistic activities not permitted by his business visa, according to the arrest warrant.

The government has promised to ease visa restrictions for international media since President Joko Widodo took office in 2014. However, foreign journalists still need to apply for special visas that can take weeks to be approved or denied.

Jacobson, 30, is an editor for Mongabay, an environmental science news website that features information on tropical rain forests.

“I don’t think he has committed a crime,” said Jacobson’s lawyer, Aryo Nugroho. “This is just an administrative matter that should be solved administratively.”

Jacobson traveled to the Central Kalimantan provincial capital of Palangkaraya on Dec. 14 to meet with activists from AMAN, an indigenous rights advocacy group, and two days later attended a dialogue between local lawmakers and activists from the group, Mongabay said in a statement.

He was scheduled to fly out of the city on Dec. 17 when immigration officers went to his guesthouse and confiscated his passport, it said.

After being questioned the next day, authorities restricted him to the city for more than a month. He was taken into custody and transferred to a detention center on Tuesday.

Mongabay founder and chief executive Rhett Butler said they are making every effort to comply with immigration authorities.

“I’m surprised that immigration officials have taken such punitive action against Philip for what is an administrative matter,” Butler said.

Jacobson’s detention drew an outcry from rights activists and media groups amid fears it could signal a more dangerous landscape for other journalists in Indonesia.

“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 Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club’s executive committee said in a statement.

Andreas Harsono of New York-based Human Rights Watch said people employed by media organizations should be free to work in Indonesia without fear of arbitrary detention.

“Philip Jacobson’s treatment is a worrying sign that the government is cracking down on the kind of work that is essential to the health of Indonesian democracy,” Harsono said.