Media organisations and Opposition leaders on Monday criticised the Delhi Police and the Bharatiya Janata Party in connection with the arrest of journalist Mohammed Zubair on charges of hurting religious sentiments.
Zubair, the co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News, was booked under Sections 153-A (promoting enmity between different groups) and 295-A (malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings) of the Indian Penal Code for a tweet that he had posted in March 2018.
In a statement, the Editors Guild of India said that Zubair and Alt News “have done some exemplary work over the past few years in identifying fake news and countering disinformation campaigns”. The guild added that the fact-checking website carries out its work in an objective and factual manner.
“It is apparent that Alt News’ alert vigilance was resented by those who use disinformation as a tool to polarise the society and rake nationalist sentiments,” the Editors Guild said.
The organisation urged the Delhi Police to immediately release Zubair. “This is necessary to buttress the commitments made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the G7 meet in Germany to ensure a resilient democracy by protecting online and offline content,” it said.
The Digipub News India Foundation, an 11-member digital-only news association, noted that this is the sixth case that has been filed against the journalist and that he was previously booked for calling three Hindutva supremacists as hatemongers. Scroll.in is among the founding members of the association.
“In a democracy, where every individual possesses the right to exercise the freedom of speech and expression, it is unjustifiable that such stringent laws are being used as tools against journalists,” the press body said in a statement. “DIGIPUB urges the Delhi Police to withdraw the case immediately.”
United States-based non-profit organisation Committee to Protect Journalists also called for Zubair’s immediate and unconditional release.
“The arrest of journalist Mohammad Zubair marks another low for press freedom in India, where the government has created a hostile and unsafe environment for members of the press reporting on sectarian issues,” said Steven Butler, the organisation’s South Asia program coordinator.
In the 2022 edition of the World Press Freedom Index published by media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières, India fell from 142nd position in 2021 to 150 this year out of 180 countries. The country ranked below even Rwanda (136), Libya (143) and Sri Lanka (146).
The Committee to Protect Journalist said that the Alt News co-founder has been repeatedly targeted in criminal cases in retaliation for his posts on Twitter.
The Press Club of India said that it was ironic that Zubair’s arrest came on a day when India joined the G7 summit pledging to protect free speech, online and offline.
“Freedom of expression is an essential ingredient of democracy,” the press body said. “India signed ‘2022 Resilient Democracies Statement’ only yesterday at G7 summit in Germany which reiterated the commitment to guarding the freedom, independence and diversity of civil society actors and protecting the freedom of expression and opinion online and offline.”
Zubair’s arrest defies “both the law and common sense”, it added.
The Mumbai Press Club also condemned Zubair’s arrest.
“The Mumbai Press Club demands that Zubair should be released immediately,” the body said in a release. “We also request Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah’s immediate intervention in this matter.”
In May, Zubair was the first one to point out BJP leader Nupur Sharma’s derogatory comments about Prophet Muhammad during a debate on Times Now television channel, which resulted in widespread outrage. After his tweet went viral, the BJP faced backlash from Muslims in India and abroad, including a number of Gulf countries. On June 5, the party suspended Sharma.
‘Assault on truth’
On Monday, Opposition leaders in India said that Zubair’s arrest was an attempt by the Modi government to clamp down on those who expose hate speech and urged the Supreme Court to take cognisance of the matter.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi remarked that all those exposing the “BJP’s hate, bigotry and lies” constitute a threat to the saffron party.
“Arresting one voice of truth will only give rise to a thousand more,” he said on Twitter. “Truth always triumphs over tyranny.”
Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram Shashi Tharoor said that Zubair’s arrest was “an assault on truth” and called for his immediate release.
“India’s few fact-checking services, especially Alt News, perform a vital service in our post-truth political environment, rife with disinformation,” he said. “They debunk falsehoods whoever perpetrates them.”
Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra said that the BJP “hates facts and everything that Zubair stands for”, according to NDTV. “They like to live in a world of make-believe and propaganda where only what the BJP puts out is the truth,” she said.
Moitra said that the Alt News co-founder is a fact-checker and not a politician. She questioned why only Opposition leaders were coming out in his support.
Aam Aadmi Party Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh urged the Supreme Court to take cognisance of the matter. “Crime, atrocity and injustice do not live for long,” he remarked.
All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi said that Zubair’s arrest was “highly condemnable”.
“He’s been arrested with no notice and in some unknown FIR,” he said. “Total violation of due process. Delhi Police does nothing about anti-Muslim genocidal slogans but acts swiftly against ‘crime’ of reporting hate speech and countering misinformation.”
The Delhi Police had filed the case against Zubair based on a tweet by an anonymous handle that had posted only one message on the microblogging site until Monday evening and had only three followers.
The handle had objected to a tweet from 2018, which showed an image of a hotel signboard repainted from “Honeymoon Hotel” to “Hanuman Hotel”.
Social media users, however, pointed out that the image Zubair had posted is from a 1983 Hindi film, Kissi Se Na Kehna, a romantic comedy directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee.