Instagram deletes 'gay Muslim' comics account after Indonesia backlash

Instagram deletes 'gay Muslim' comics account after Indonesia backlash
3 min read
13 February, 2019
Instagram has succumb to Indonesian pressure and removed an account which consisted of comics to spark empathy for the LGBTQ+ community in the country.
A march in support of LGBTQ+ rights in Indonesia [Getty]

Instagram has removed an account that published comic strips depicting the struggles of gay Muslims in Indonesia, causing concern over growing pressures by illiberal states on content providers to remove material they find unsavoury.

Jakarta’s Ministry of Communications said on Wednesday that the account under the username Alpatuni was 'pornographic', which violated the law on information and electronic transactions. It was closed after the communications minister wrote a warning letter to Instagram, the ministry said.

The comics depicted gay characters facing discrimination and abuse, which has become increasingly common in Indonesia since late 2015 when conservative politicians and religious leaders began a campaign of portraying people of the LGBTQ+ community as a threat to the nation.

An account of the same name on Facebook, which owns Instagram, was also no longer accessible.

Facebook's regional office in Singapore said its Instagram arm was preparing a response to the controversy.

Human Rights Watch's Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono said Instagram should defend its own guidelines, which published in Indonesian say the service is a mirror of the diversity of the community, instead of "kowtowing" to the government.

"That account describes mostly the problems of gay individuals in Indonesia. It's no secret that many LGBT individuals are arrested, their houses raided, some are sentenced to prison terms," he said.

"The Indonesian government does not help them in demanding the removal of that account."

The communications ministry said it appreciated that members of the community reported the gay Muslim account, which "accelerated" its removal.

Some Indonesian netizens in turn congratulated the ministry. On Twitter, Fahmi Alfansi Pane, a policy analyst at the Indonesian parliament, thanked officials for "acting decisively" to protect public morality but also admitted to have never seeing the comments.

Local media, quoting the communications minister, reported the ministry would block Instagram in Indonesia if the Alpatuni account wasn't removed.

The government frequently threatens to block Western social media and internet companies for content deemed illegal but has never taken such measures, possibly fearful of a public backlash due to the huge popularity of the services with Indonesians.

Worrying trend

The closure of the accounts comes as a worrying trend of states pressuring media outlets and media firms to censor accounts and content that are deemed “immoral”.

Late last year, Netflix pulled an episode of its comedy series in which a comedian Hassan Minhaj criticised Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his alleged involvement of the killing of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

"The incident highlights a subtle but pervasive problem: corporate collusion with authoritarian states to suppress free expression and unpopular views", Charles W. Dunne said.

"In 2017, Snapchat removed Al Jazeera's stories and video from the Saudi Arabian version of its app, prompting the Qatari-owned media company to complain that the US firm's "alarming" move could encourage countries to silence dissent by using their clout with social media and content distributors."

Agencies contributed to this report.