On June 27, Indian journalist and co-founder of fact-checking website AltNews, Mohammed Zubair, was arrested by Indian police over a tweet he put out in 2018. Zubair was accused of insulting Hindu religious beliefs on Twitter by the now-defunct Twitter account @balajikijaiin. According to the police, the tweet featured an image of a hotel with its “Honeymoon Hotel” signboard repainted to “Hanuman Hotel.” Hanuman is the revered Hindu god of courage, devotion, strength and wisdom, and the divine companion of the god Rama.
Zubair remained in police custody for four days while authorities sought access to his electronic devices, including his laptop and mobile phone, as part of the ongoing investigation. He has been arrested under Sections 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which respectively deal with promoting enmity, and engaging in deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious sensitivities. On July 2, he was officially denied bail and sent to custody for 14 days.
Earlier in June, Zubair had criticized Nupur Sharma, the national spokesperson of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the leader. Sharma had made derogatory comments about Islam’s Prophet Mohammed, resulting in a diplomatic row between India and 15 Muslim-majority nations. Sharma’s comments were termed “Islamophobic,” resulting in her suspension from the party.
Journalist Rana Ayyub highlighted that there was a sustained online campaign to get Zubair arrested:
Chronicling the online campaign to jail Mohammed Zubair
Alt News cofounder’s arrest for a 2018 tweet referencing a film trope is the culmination of a sustained campaign against him. Excellent report by @newslaundry https://t.co/ywwZzbIbYY
— Rana Ayyub (@RanaAyyub) June 30, 2022
Zubair often tweets videos highlighting rising Hindu extremism in India and the curtailment of rights for the country's 200-million-strong Muslim population.
Zubair’s efforts to spotlight increasing instances of Islamophobic commentary by right-wing groups in India have been crucial in garnering international censure.
From arresting activists to censuring and jailing comedians for political commentary, India’s right-wing government has been accused of using colonial-era laws to suppress civil society criticism.
India ranked 150th in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, published by press watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), raising concerns about the safety of journalists and the role of media as the fourth pillar of the world’s fourth-largest democracy.
Meanwhile, activists, politicians, and journalists have condemned Zubair’s arrest, demanding his immediate release.
DIGIPUB News India Foundation, a coalition of digital media organizations, issued the following statement:
Digipub condemns in the strongest possible terms the arrest of Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of Alt News. pic.twitter.com/POYEaGIdAI
— DIGIPUB News India Foundation (@DigipubIndia) June 27, 2022
Steven Butler, Asia Programme Coordinator of the Committee To Protect Journalists (CPJ), added:
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. Authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Zubair, and allow him to pursue his journalistic work without further interference.
Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Indian National Congress (INC), tweeted:
Every person exposing BJP's hate, bigotry and lies is a threat to them.
Arresting one voice of truth will only give rise to a thousand more.
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) June 27, 2022
However, Zubair is not the first activist to be arrested in recent times. On June 25, two days before he was taken into custody, Gujarat police officers took fellow activist Teesta Setalvad from her residence in India’s financial capital, Mumbai. Setalvad is known for her activism around the 2002 Gujarat Riots that killed over 1,000 people in communal clashes, most of them Muslims.
Human Rights organization Forum Asia condemned her arrest:
.@forum_asia condemns the arrest of human rights defender @TeestaSetalvad by the ATS Gujarat. This is not the first time that an elaborate attempt has been made to hound her. We stand by Teesta and call for her immediate release. #FreeTeestaSetalvad https://t.co/93kQjWENSx
— FORUM-ASIA (@forum_asia) July 1, 2022
According to reports, the Indian government has also sought to block tweets from U.S.-based advocacy group Freedom House, journalist Rana Ayyub, Pakistan government officials, and opposition political groups like the Aam Aadmi Party and the INC. This document was shared by Lumen Database.
Political commentator Sagarika Ghose wrote in an opinion piece on NDTV.com:
Using police power to slam activists and dissenters in jail does not ensure ‘law and order,’ it actually destroys it. Politicians need to realize the value of rights activists like Teesta Setalvad. These activists appeal for justice and compassion from the system through lawful democratic means. As such they bring India's democracy a significant amount of legitimacy and credibility, both at home and in the eyes of the world.
Yet, on the day of Zubair’s arrest, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the G7 Summit and pledged to defend the principles of free speech, open public debate, and freedom of expression.
An editorial in The Hindu called the developments a “theatre of the absurd”:
It is unfortunate that the Government wants to be seen as protective of free speech and democratic values abroad, but does not mind the odium that the hounding of or crackdown on activists and journalists invites. Instead of perpetuating this travesty of justice, the Government should see reason, drop the spiteful case, and release him.
Journalist Umang Poddar summed up the reality of the situation this way:
Zubair’s lawyers […] argued that a journalist’s digital devices hold a lot of sensitive information and should not be confiscated. However, in India, journalists do not enjoy higher freedom of expression or privacy as compared to other citizens. Nor do they get protection from disclosing their sources.
While Section 15(2) of the Press Council of India Act, 1978 says that no journalist can be compelled to disclose their sources, this protection applies only to proceedings before the council.
On July 2, 2022, an investigation by news portal The Wire has uncovered the existence of a network of 757 Twitter accounts which were used to mount attacks against AltNews. The recovery email ID for the anonymous Twitter handle (@balajikijaiin) that instigated the original FIR was “firstname.lastname@example.org,” is linked to Vikash Ahir, the state president of the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) and co-convenor of the Gujrat based Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM).