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Indonesian Official: Gay Emojis Could Cause Civil Unrest

Indonesia is looking to ban same-sex emojis. This certainly isn't the first time they've tried to censor "un-Islamic" content from the Internet.

A man browses the specific gay emojis from an instant messaging application in Jakarta on February 12, 2016.  In the latest crackdown on homosexuality in Indonesia, the government has demanded all instant messaging apps remove LGBT emoticons or face a ban in the Muslim-majority country.      AFP PHOTO / Bay ISMOYO / AFP / BAY ISMOYO        (Photo credit should read BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images)
A man browses the specific gay emojis from an instant messaging application in Jakarta on February 12, 2016. In the latest crackdown on homosexuality in Indonesia, the government has demanded all instant messaging apps remove LGBT emoticons or face a ban in the Muslim-majority country. AFP PHOTO / Bay ISMOYO / AFP / BAY ISMOYO (Photo credit should read BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images)

Real people in Indonesia may have the right to be gay, but their emojis soon won’t.

The Indonesian government announced this week that it wants messaging apps to remove same-sex emojis from their systems if the apps are going to be used in the Muslim-majority country. Emojis, also called stickers, allow cellphone users to communicate with small cartoons. The emojis the government has a problem with include those with two men or two women with a heart or child between them.

At least one messaging service, LINE, already adhered to the request.

“LINE regrets the incidents of some stickers which are considered sensitive by many people,” the company said in a statement.

The Indonesian government was thankful for LINE’s quick action on what it apparently considers to be a matter of political stability in the country of 250 million people.

“The ministry is appreciative of LINE Indonesia for their understanding and discretion in dealing with matters that could potentially cause public unrest, especially the concerns of mothers for their children in terms of the negative influence the circulation of these LGBT stickers could cause,” Ismail Cawidu, a spokesman for the government’s ministry of information said in a statement this week.

Although it is not illegal to be gay in Muslim-majority Indonesia, discussions of sexuality remain touchy. In Aceh province, which is run under Sharia law, anyone who participates in gay sex could be punished with 100 cane strikes.

And Indonesia’s central government in Jakarta has come under scrutiny from international human rights groups in recent weeks over a pattern of increasingly hostile behavior toward gay Indonesians.

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch called on President Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, to stand up for gay rights and condemn anti-LGBT rhetoric. Two recent examples noted by the rights group were suggested bans on LGBT groups on university campuses, and the Indonesian police’s decision to interrupt an outreach event intended to educated gay men on HIV.

Graeme Reid, director of LGBT research at Human Rights Watch, said Jokowi should clarify his stance “before such rhetoric opens the door to more abuses.”

For now, it doesn’t look like Widodo is interested. Now that the government has convinced LINE to remove its gay emojis, the much more popular WhatsApp is next.

Cawidu argued in favor of the ban with claims that “social media must respect the culture, and local wisdom of the country where they have [a] large numbers of users.”

This is far from the first time the Indonesian government has banned Internet content by saying it could damage societal norms.

In May 2014, under the previous administration, then- Communications Minister Tifatul Sembiring made it his mission to ban anything he found online that he deemed un-Islamic. That included thousands of pornography sites, and later the hugely popular video-sharing site Vimeo, which does not even allow pornography. His reasoning? A number of videos he found inappropriate, with names like “Nudie Cutie,” “Art of Nakedness” and “Beautiful of Nakedness.”

Ironically, just two months earlier, he had followed a pornographic account on Twitter. But don’t worry — he promises it wasn’t on purpose. He accidentally hit “follow” while searching the Internet for more content he should block.

Photo Credit: BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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