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Indonesia’s top clerical body threatens fatwa against Netflix – or does it?

Several local media outlets reported on Thursday that Hasanudin AF, the head of the fatwa board for the Indonesian Ulema Council (known as MUI), the country’s top clerical body, had said he was ready to issue a fatwa, or religious ruling, against the popular streaming service, which has more than 150 million users around the world for showing haram (forbidden) content.

Netflix's top 10 list of 2019 releases in Australia.

Netflix’s top 10 list of 2019 releases in Australia.

In a country that has taken a turn towards a more conservative brand of Islam in recent years, the idea that MUI would be prepared to make such a statement was believable.

Outlets including Tempo.co, Bisnis.com and Detik.com ran articles quoting Hasanudin AF suggesting that such an edict was possible to protect the public from “negative content”. Criticism of the statement quickly percolated on social media.

The word “haram” was quickly one of the top trending topics on Indonesian social media and, for example, Twitter user @zwolfenaugust comment “Please tell telkomsel and indihome are haram too they menzolimi [tyrannise] their customers with high price and poor performances” was shared more than 4000 times.

Telkom, a major telecoms group that owns the Telkomsel network in Indonesia, has also blocked Netflix for its 112 million data customers on its network – though the company’s public relations officer Arief Prabowo said it “is not blocked, it cannot be accessed”.

Why?

“As an operator, Telkom does not have the capacity to determine negative content that is not in line with regulations [such as a ban on pornography introduced about a decade ago] existing in Indonesia…this is based on our commitment to protect consumers and Indonesian people as well as providing comfort in enjoying each of our services,” Arief said.

Ferdinand Setu, a spokesman for Ministry of Communications, confirmed Telkom had blocked Netflix because a mechanism did not exist for the service to take down objectionable content within 24 hours.

“We as a government must think of the whole country. Indonesia has 171 million active internet users and not all of them are digitally literate, meaning we can understand what Telkom did concerning Netflix.”

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The ministry helpfully provided a list of 38 movies and TV shows found in just the last three days considered to contain pornographic content, including well-known movies such as American Pie 2, Sense 8, Indecent Proposal and Sex and the City – as well as some more obscure titles.

Kooswardini Wulandari, the communications manager for Netflix, issued a terse “thanks for reaching out, we’re not commenting on this” when contacted about the situation.

And bizarrely, Hasanudin AF told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that it was not true he had threatened to issue a fatwa against Netflix.

“I want to say it is not true. I never said so. People have been telling me they read my statement on social media stating MUI is ready to issue a fatwa that Netflix is haram. I don’t know what Netflix is let alone issuing a fatwa about it,” he said.

He was backed up in an official statement from MUI on Friday morning.

Whatever may or may not be happening within MUI, it is clear that Netflix is blocked on one of Indonesia’s major mobile phone networks (the Herald and Age correspondent’s household is a Telkom customer and regular viewer of such shows as Peppa Pig and Dora the Explorer).

And it’s also clear that debates over morality – and what is acceptable in the public sphere – are becoming increasingly frequent in Indonesia.

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