On Wednesday, journalist Mohammed Zubair’s 23-day imprisonment ended as the Supreme Court granted him interim bail in all six cases filed against him in Uttar Pradesh. These cases had come in quick succession after his initial arrest by the Delhi Police on June 27. Zubair got bail in this case on July 15.

Zubair had long been under pressure from Hindutva leaders and supporters angry at his fact-checking activities as co-founder of Alt News. The final straw seems to have come when, in May, he posted a clip from a TV debate show during which a Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson, Nupur Sharma, had made derogatory remarks about Prophet Mohammed.

Sharma’s comments created an international storm. At least 18 countries issued statements of condemnation. As a consequence, the BJP suspended her. Its national secretary went so far as to claim that the party was “strongly against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion” and that the party “does not promote such people or ideology”.

Punished for journalism

However, just after this, Zubair found himself trapped in a Kafkaesque maze. Police forces in BJP states started to file cases against him for ludicrous reasons. His initial arrest, for example, was for a 2018 tweet of a still from a 1983 Bollywood romantic comedy. He was arrested on the basis of an anonymous complaint by a Twitter handle (which had posted only one tweet since had it was created last year), which claimed the post hurt his or her religious sentiments.

Another FIR was filed because Zubair had described three Hindutva leaders as “hatemongers”. Ironically, they had already been booked by the police for hate speech.

Inspite of the absurd nature of these charges, Zubair ended up spending more than three weeks in prison, with lower courts in Uttar Pradesh blindly siding with the police in refusing him bail.

The targeting of Zubair and his 23-day imprisonment underlines an uncomfortable fact about India: journalists can be punished by the state almost at will. Zubair’s bail is a positive move by the judiciary. But it is also a fact that this is rare – an exception that proves that rule. Journalism is under attack in India and part of the reason for that is because the judiciary isn’t doing enough to defend media freedom.

Target at will

In 2020, for example, a journalist, Siddique Kappan, was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police while on his way to report on the alleged gangrape and murder of a young Dalit woman in Hathras. Almost two years later, Kappan is still in jail, with the Uttar Pradesh police claiming he has links with banned Islamist groups.

Like with Zubair, it is difficult to ignore the fact that these grave charges materialised only when Kappan tried to report on a crime that the ruling party found uncomfortable. India’s broken justice system means that the journalist has now undergone a significant prison sentence while still to be convicted for even a single charge.

Another troubling case is that of Fahad Shah, a prominent Kashmiri journalist. Since February, he has been arrested several times, with new cases being piled on every time he manages to secure bail. One case absurdly involves terror charges for an article published on Shah’s website more than a decade ago. Like with Kappan, the state was making it clear that it can vindictively target journalists almost at will.

Only on Sunday, the Jharkhand Police arrested independent journalist Rupesh Kumar Singh, alleging that he used to arrange funds for Maoists. Singh was among the 40 Indian journalists whose phone numbers appeared in a leaked database, which reflects potential targets of cyber surveillance through the use of the Pegasus hacking software that an Israeli company claims to sell only to governments.

A dangerous place

Cases like these are a symbol of the dangers of doing journalism in India. In 2022, for example, India’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index fell from 142 to 150 out of 180 countries, according to a study by media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières. The United Arab Emirates, a monarchy, and Hong Kong, ruled by a single-party state, outrank India.

Another study by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists found that India had highest number of journalists murdered for doing their work in 2021. In the same year, three Indians were part of a list of 10 “most urgent” cases of journalists under attack, published by international media watchdog, One Free Press Coalition.

Democracy is untenable without a free press. As journalists increasingly come under attack by vindictive politicians, the judiciary has to step up and ensure that a Kappan or a Shah is not deprived of their liberty simply for doing their job.