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Why Blocking Gay Muslim Comics on Instagram Is Pointless

An Instagram account in Indonesia raised LGBTQ issues, pissing off the government. The good news is blocking these accounts does not mean they won’t pop right back up.

by Adi Renaldi
22 February 2019, 12:00pm

It wasn’t long before the Instagram account @alpantuni took the virtual world by storm. This account managed to break free of the societal mold that prevented LGBTQ issues from being discussed openly in Indonesia. Sadly but expectedly, the account was short-lived.

In early January, the account launched to feature comics about the life of a gay Muslim man. The account gained some traction, amassing around 6,000 followers quickly. One comic titled Tobat Mas, Adzan (Repent, sir. There’s the Call to Prayer), depicts a gay couple making out, then having to cut their merriment short when the call to prayer sounds.

“Hold up… Respect the call to prayer,” says one of the characters.

The account’s bio was quite straightforward: “Gay Muslim comics for people who can think.” Each of their posts features the hashtags #gaymalaysia #gayindonesia #gaymuslim #gaycomics #komikmalaysia. The sudden appearance of the comics was met with outrage in the two Muslim-majority nations. Insulting and angry comments flooded the account, with the Indonesian government releasing a statement shortly after it blew up.

Posts in the form of comic strips have become popular in Indonesia in the past few years, including the work of users Tahilalats, Si Juki, Komik Jakarta, and others. These accounts upload comics in a specific style, depicting everyday issues with humor and sometimes sarcasm. Yet despite the popularity of comics as a medium, apparently, not all are socially accepted. When it comes to comics addressing taboo topics and anything that may be remotely perceived to insult religion, a controversy is often quick to follow.

On @alpantuni, Rudiantara, the Minister of Communication and Information (Kominfo) of Indonesia, said he sent a warning letter to Instagram regarding the content posted by the account, urging it to be removed. If the Facebook-owned social media platform didn’t respond to Kominfo’s letter, the government threatened to shut Instagram down.

“What are we supposed to do if IG doesn’t behave? We’ve been transparent, do they want to be shut down?” Rudiantara said, as quoted by local press.

Kominfo then went on to describe basics of the law, threatening to charge @alpantuni with the Electronic Information and Transactions Act (UU ITE). Comics about gay Muslims presumably violated article 27, line 1 of the UU ITE that bans pornography. Kominfo didn’t go into detail about what exactly counted as pornographic content, although it is widely understood to have been a depiction of two men kissing (which is problematic, considering romance webtoons often feature opposite sex kissing) and bare-chested men.

@alpantuni suddenly disappeared from Instagram on February 13. VICE Indonesia attempted to get in touch with the account’s admin via direct message and email, but didn’t receive a response. It’s still unclear whether the person behind this account is Indonesian or from a neighboring country. The Indonesian government claims that the account’s sudden disappearance is simply Instagram’s response to their demands.

Within a day, Instagram denied having deleted the account.

“Instagram did not remove this account,” Asia Pacific Instagram spokesperson, Ching Yee Wong told the press. “There are a number of other reasons why an account may no longer be accessible, for example, if the account holder deleted the account, deactivated the account, or changed the account username.”

As expected, it was ineffective to block and shut down the account. Soon after, two similar accounts, @alpantuni_ and @alpantunii, appeared on Instagram less than 24 hours after the original @alpantuni account disappeared. Both of the profiles have no more than 10 posts.

Many see the government’s blocking policy as futile, which has initiated the take down of content ranging from pornography to hentai comics to YouTube videos. Here’s the thing: controversial content is distributed in various platforms, not only on Instagram – so the amount of content that need to be “blocked,” if judged by the government based on morality, is arguably endless.

Yet politicians support the government in banning negative content online which they deem morally unacceptable. Syaifullah Tamliha, a member of the House of Representatives, strongly condemned the existence of @alpantuni’s account to local media. “There’s no place for an LGBT community in Indonesia. Our country is indeed not a religious country, but we have religions. All the scriptures that we have, whether it’s Quran for Muslims, Bible for Christians, or Torah for Jewish, forbid same-sex marriage.”

Anti-LGBTQ sentiment notably surged during this 2019 election season as well. Some provinces have passed regulations which explicitly deny the rights of LGBTQ individuals in Indonesia, with Depok, Payakumbuh, and East Kotawaringin having prepared drafts for similar regulations late last year.

In recent years, along with the rise of religious populism and conservatism, LGBTQ citizens have become an easy target of discrimination and persecution. Research findings from Community Legal Aid Institute (LBHM) showed that transgender people, especially transgender women, experience the most stigma, discrimination, and violence based on sexual orientation or gender expression. Their study on online news throughout 2017 found at least 973 victims of persecution. After further investigation, 715 or 73.86 percent of victims in news reports were from the transgender community.

Andreas Harsono, researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the pictures on @alpantuni’s account illustrated the problems faced by gay people in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. In these two countries, the LGBTQ community often have to hide their sexuality if they don’t want to be persecuted or discriminated against.

“The account portrayed how hard it is to be gay in Indonesia,” Andreas told VICE. “It’s no secret that many individuals from the LGBTQ community have been arrested, persecuted and imprisoned.”

And with a government that places them as second-class citizens with limited legal rights, perhaps it is no surprise that they can’t even express their struggles through comics – even if they will undoubtedly, and thankfully, just keep popping up.

UPDATE 2/22: The Instagram account was restored on Feb. 19.

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.