This article originally appeared on VICE News.
Indonesia's highest Muslim clerical council said Wednesday it is preparing to issue a fatwa (a religious ruling) to curb the spread of fake news being used to fuel ethnic and religious tensions and threatening to influence an upcoming election.
The fatwa will decree the spreading of slander and lies as haram, or forbidden. However, fatwas are not legally binding and the council is not an officially elected government body, meaning the impact of the ruling could be limited.
The government is also attempting to stop the spread of fake news, with the Communications Ministry last month blocking 11 websites it claimed were spreading hatred and misinformation, following a similar step in November.
"We will issue [the fatwa] as soon as possible, because the situation is worrying," said Maaruf Amin, chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI). "Hopefully, at least Muslims won't be involved anymore in hoaxes." Amin added that the council had consulted the government first before issuing its decision "so that our approach will not be in opposition to government policy."
Fake news spreads
In Indonesia, fake news has been a problem for some time, but in recent months there has been an uptick in stories targeting Chinese and Christian minorities in the country. Some of the spurious reports being widely shared in recent weeks include a suggestion that 10 million Chinese workers have flooded into Indonesia; a report that a Communist hammer-and-sickle symbol was hidden in new banknotes; and a claim that a free HPV vaccine program could make girls infertile – part of a Chinese conspiracy to weaken the Indonesian Muslim population.
These stories are all meant to undermine the candidacy of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is seeking reelection as governor of Jakarta in the 15 Feb. election. Ahok, as he is popularly known, is an ethnic Chinese Christian and is running in a hotly contested election.
Ahok was charged with blasphemy after an edited video and transcript of a campaign speech he made in September appeared online, with some conservative Muslims claiming it showed him insulting the Quran. Ahok and his supporters insist that he was merely criticizing those who preach from it. As a result of the video being shared widely, more than 100,000 protesters, led by hardline Muslim leaders, descended on Jakarta to call for Ahok to be imprisoned.
Government takes action
President Joko Widodo, widely seen as a Muslim moderate, has vowed to crack down on the fake news problem. "Slander, hatred, and rude words on social media are increasingly troubling people," Jokowi tweeted on Dec. 29. "We need determined and tough law enforcement."
The president is well aware of the impact fake news can have. During the 2014 presidential elections, a smear campaign claimed variously that he was the child of Indonesian Communist Party members, of Chinese descent, and a Christian. Jokowi was forced to produce his marriage certificate in order to stop the rumors.
The president has called on social media users to stop the spread of fake news, and the Indonesian government has asked Facebook to help combat the problem.