India, along with the G7 nations and four other countries, signed a statement on Monday that called for “guarding the freedom, independence and diversity of civil society actors” and “protecting the freedom of expression and opinion online and offline”.
The “2022 Resilient Democracies Statement” was signed after Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended a summit of the G7 countries. Apart from India, the signatories to the statement were Germany, Argentina, Canada, France, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Senegal, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the European Union.
“We hail all courageous defenders of democratic systems that stand against oppression and violence, and will step up international cooperation to improve the resilience of democratic societies globally,” the statement read.
The 12 nations and blocs resolved to foster “open and pluralistic civic spaces” and defend “open and pluralistic debate”.
Notably, India signed the statement on the day when the Delhi Police arrested journalist Mohammed Zubair on charges of hurting religious sentiments for a tweet that he had posted in March 2018.
Media organisations and Opposition leaders criticised the Modi government, saying that this action was “another low for press freedom in India”. India’s rank fell eight places to 150 among 180 countries in this year’s World Press Freedom Index published by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
The first information report against Zubair was based on a complaint by Delhi Police Sub-Inspector Arun Kumar, who said he was monitoring social media when he came across the March 2018 tweet after a handle named Hanuman Bhakt raised objections.
The handle had posted only one message on the microblogging site until Monday evening and had only three followers.
The handle had taken objection to Zubair’s tweet, showing a hotel signboard with the name “Honeymoon Hotel” repainted to “Hanuman Hotel”. Social media users, however, pointed out that the image Zubair had posted is from a 1983 Hindi film.
Zubair, a co-founder of the fact-checking website Alt News, has been one of the leading voices in India in debunking misinformation and reporting on hate speech. But, he has often been targeted for his work by Hindutva supremacists.
The action against Zubair came two days after human rights activist Teesta Setalvad was arrested on Saturday for allegedly committing forgery and fabricating evidence in a case related to the 2002 Gujarat riots.
She was arrested a day after the Supreme Court dismissed a plea filed by Zakia Jafri and her, challenging the report of a Special Investigation Team that had cleared Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a case about the 2002 Gujarat riots. Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat at the time of the riots and Jafri is the wife of former MP Ehsan Jafri, who had been killed in the communal violence.
A day after Setalvad was detained, United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, said that the police action was deeply concerning.
In March itself, India was described as a “partially free” country for the second year in a row in the 2022 report by the United States non-governmental organisation Freedom House. In the report, the status of a country is based on the score that is calculated on two indicators – political rights and civil liberties.
The 2022 Freedom House report attributed the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government’s “discriminatory policies” and increase in the persecution of the Muslim population for the “partially free” status.