Aisyah Llewellyn, Medan, Indonesia – In a TikTok clip posted on March 9, Indonesian influencer Lina Luftiawati, who uses the stage name Lina Mukherjee, sits in front of a plate of rice, vegetables, and a slab of crispy pork skin.
As a Muslim, Mukherjee's religion forbids the consumption of pig meat. "Bismillah, I think I will be taken off my family [register] because I'm curious about pork skin," she says to the camera, giggling, before she tucks in.
One week, 13 million views, and scores of angry comments later, the country's top Muslim clerical body issued a fatwa – a ruling on Islamic law – against Mukherjee. In its fatwa, the Indonesian Ulema Council said it considered the clip blasphemous. On March 15, a Muslim cleric in South Sumatra filed a police report in Palembang, a city with strong representation from the religious right.
Last week, on May 5, the influencer was officially named a suspect in a blasphemy case. She now faces up to five years' jail under Indonesia's blasphemy and hate speech laws.
Indonesia, despite being officially secular, has a large Muslim majority. Its blasphemy laws have been criticized by human rights groups, concerned that the country's increasingly conservative Islamist groups are weaponizing the law to crack down on minorities. With those laws extending into the digital space, experts told Rest of World the threshold for online defamation is even less clear than before.
According to Gatria Priyandita, a cyber policy analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), there is "public confusion" on the laws, and the "red line" on issues such as blasphemy, racism and defamation can be blurry. "At the same time, this [lack of definition] gives accusers a lot of room to make accusations," he told Rest of World.
Adding to the confusion is the nature of Indonesia's influencer industry. While vast and well-developed, its stars can fail to link their online antics with real-life consequences. In March this year, a video of a tax official's Instagram-famous son went viral, leading internet sleuths to question how his family was able to afford luxury cars, motorcycles, and more on a bureaucrat's salary and prompting a massive tax department probe that uncovered $20 billion of graft.
In May last year, Indonesian influencers Indra Kesuma and Doni Salmanan were arrested on charges of fraud, online gambling, money laundering, and violating the country's Electronic Information and Transactions Law by allegedly spreading fake news about fraudulent online investment apps. The tipoff for the allegations came from their Instagram content, where they flaunted the riches they credited to online trading.
With a presidential election on the way in 2024, it's likely that more highly personal content will be on the rise, said Priyandita. "More cases of online defamation – whether or not [they are] based on blasphemy, or racial or ethnic discrimination charges – will emerge," he said.
Andreas Harsono, a researcher for Human Rights Watch Indonesia who has studied the blasphemy law for the past two decades, blamed the "toxic law" itself in Mukherjee's case. "It is an abusive law that is often used as a political and religious weapon," he told Rest of World. "If Indonesia is a true democracy, [Mukherjee] should be freed."
For her part, Mukherjee apologized for the video and promised to be more mindful of her social media content in the future. "I apologize to the people of Indonesia, because as a public figure I made a mistake. In the future, I will use my social media better [for more] useful [content]," she told local media in early May.
Despite religious factions in Palembang lobbying for her to be held in detention, she remains at home while police investigate the case.
[Aisyah Llewellyn is a freelance writer based in Medan, Indonesia.]