Fake news in Indonesia draws a possible fatwa as Jakarta governor's race heats up

A pedestrian walks past the Indonesian symbol of Garuda Pancasila (back), a mythical golden eagle with a heraldic shield on its chest.
Bay Ismoyo | AFP | Getty Images

Indonesia's highest Islamic clerical body, which last year issued a religious edict of blasphemy against the governor of Jakarta and ally of President Joko Widodo, now may offer him support, as a complex mix of politics and religion plays out ahead of a closely-watched election.

The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) looks set to issue a fatwa cautioning against spreading fake news online, a move that could aid the re-election of Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is ethnic Chinese and a Christian, at polls on Feb. 15.

The governor, popularly known as Ahok, was accused of blasphemy last year after referencing a verse from the Koran while campaigning and a trial is pending. Blasphemy laws in Indonesia are applicable to any of its six officially recognized religions.

Jakarta's Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (foreground), better known by his nickname Ahok, flashes a victory sign as he appears in court for his ongoing trial in Jakarta on Jan. 3, 2017.
Irwan Rismawan | AFP | Getty Images

"We will issue (the fatwa) as soon as possible, because the situation is worrying," Ma'aruf Amin, chairman of the MUI, said last week, according to Reuters. The MUI is responsible for issuing fatwas, or religious edicts, and providing religious guidance, carrying moral force, but not legal.

Their sights are now set on a spread of unproven stories that could incite a backlash in Indonesia, even if they appear outlandish. For example, one hot fake news items alleges China is pursuing warfare with chili seeds.

News of the chili seed conspiracy emerged on social media in December last year accusing China of using contaminated seeds as a biological weapon. The false reports were based on a true news story on four Chinese nationals arrested for planting chili seeds that had been contaminated with bacteria on a farm near Bogor city.

The contaminated chili seeds were destroyed by authorities, but this did not stop the a wave of anti-China sentiment on social media. Even the Chinese embassy in Indonesia was involved, issuing a statement to say that the reports were "very worrying" and that it hoped ties between the two countries would not be negatively affected.

Even though slightly under 40 percent of the population owns smartphones, those that do are extremely connected to social media. Jakarta was found to be the most active city in terms of Twitter use in 2012 by the research company Semiocast.

Jakarta rallies distracting Jokowi from priorities: Expert

The Indonesian authorities have also spoken up on the issue.

"Libel, hate speech and false words on social media are increasingly troubling society," President Joko Widodo tweeted in December last year, adding the law enforcement had to come down hard on those who engaged in these online behaviors.

Jokowi has experienced the repercussions of fake news first-hand when rumors on social media falsely claimed that he had ties to a local Communist group during his presidential campaign.

According to one researcher, the government has tacitly sought the fatwa to stem any potential incidents as well as help Ahok win a three-way race that includes former Minister of Education and Culture Anies Baswedan and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the son of former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Dina Afrianty, a researcher at the Australian Catholic University, said a fatwa against fake news might be seen as a political aim to stem a religious backlash and keep the economy on track.

"It is the Indonesian government who asked MUI to release a fatwa to minimize the heightened political tension in this last week of the campaign season," Afrianty told CNBC in an email, "In my view, this is very political. As a quasi-government institution, MUI is often used by the government, any political parties or interest groups for their own political purposes."

"What I have seen since the first trial took place in early December 2016 (is that) the public gradually realized that Ahok's case is actually a political game, not so much about Islam," said Afrianty.

A recent poll showed 24.1 percent of respondents for Yudhoyono and 22.7 percent chose Baswedan. Ahok remained the front-runner ahead of the election on Feb. 15 -- 37.4 percent of respondents indicated that they would vote for him.

Police officers take security measure as demonstrators gather to protest the Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, as he attends trial in Jakarta, Indonesia on Jan. 3, 2017.
Agoes Rudianto | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

But it was also the MUI that issued a fatwa last year that declared that Ahok had committed blasphemy, which sparked protests that drew as many as 200,000 people to one rally, showing the potential of the body to spur public response.

Ahok, like Jokowi, is seen as an economic reformer and would be a key player in plans to beef up infrastructure in the city of 10 million, the largest in the country and a commercial as well as political hub.

Colm Fox, a professor of political science at the Singapore Management University, however said the reformer tag has not been a sure-fire winner in political races in Indonesia.

"Mayoral and district head elections in Indonesia are very personalistic," Fox said. "In terms of winning an election, the character traits and identity of the candidates and whether they are likeable is key. In contrast, the ability for parties to foster support for their candidates is weak (as) most of Indonesia's parties are still relatively new and the public's attachment to (them) is still weak."

Still, Fox said that " (p)olicy has become more important in recent years and candidates have become increasingly specific on their policies."

While the gubernatorial election might not have a significant impact on the Jokowi government's national reform agenda, the results could affect local policy, said Jacob Ricks, a professor at the Singapore Management University. He cited policies that target mass transit infrastructure and flood control in Jakarta as issues that will be impacted by who assumes the post as governor.

"Ahok's administration has moved forward on these issues, and hopefully they would continue as planned under the new administration. Ahok is widely seen as a no-nonsense manager … It remains to be seen if either of the other two candidates would be as effective," Ricks said in an email.

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