New Delhi, India – Police in the Indian capital have arrested journalist Mohammed Zubair for offending religious feelings for a tweet he posted in 2018.
Zubair, co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News, was arrested in New Delhi on Monday night and held in police custody for a day, officials and media reports said.
Zubair was arrested after a complaint from a Twitter handle @balajikijaiin earlier this month, in which the subject alleged the 39-year-old Muslim journalist had offended Hindus by commenting on renaming a hotel after the Hindu monkey god Hanuman.
His arrest came five days after Twitter received a government request alleging his account violated Indian laws.
Alt News’ other co-founder, Pratik Sinha, said on Twitter that Zubair was not notified prior to his arrest.
“He is currently being held in a police van in Burari for more than an hour,” Sinha said, referring to a New Delhi neighborhood where Zubair was due to be paraded before a judge authorized the arrest.
In another tweet, Sinha wrote: “After the medical examination, Zubair will be taken to an undisclosed location. Neither Zubair’s lawyers nor I are told where. We’re with him in the police car. No police wear a name tag.”
Zubair, a former telecommunications engineer from Bengaluru’s southern IT hub, and Sinha, a software engineer from Ahmedabad, founded Alt News in 2017.
Since then, the website has uncovered numerous fake news stories, mostly circulated by Hindu right-wing portals, and claims made by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or their supporters.
Zubair and Sinha have faced online trolling and police prosecutions for years because of their jobs.
I am wondering why the Delhi police are in such a hurry to take Zubair all the way from Dwarka to the residence of a magistrate on duty in Burariat at this hour? Why don’t you bring him before the ordinary court tomorrow before the 24 hours are up, which is tomorrow afternoon?
— Pratik Sinha (@free_thinker) June 27, 2022
Delhi Police spokeswoman Suman Nalwa confirmed Zubair’s arrest to Al Jazeera, saying Section 153 (provocation with intent to cause a riot) and Section 295A (deliberate and malicious acts aimed at inciting religious sentiment). violating) of the Indian Penal Code had been asserted against the journalist.
When asked about Sinha’s claims on Twitter that no prior notice was given or that Zubair was taken to an undisclosed location, Nalwa said, “I haven’t seen the tweets and I don’t respond to tweets.”
“Another low for press freedom”
Journalists, activists and opposition leaders have condemned Zubair’s arrest and called for his immediate release, calling the police action an “attack on the truth”.
In a statement released on Twitter, the DIGIPUB News India Foundation, a network of digital media organizations, said it must stop using “tough” laws as a tool against journalists.
Digipub strongly condemns the arrest of Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair. pic.twitter.com/POYEaGIdAI
— DIGIPUB News India Foundation (@DigipubIndia) June 27, 2022
Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said Zubair’s arrest “marks another low point for press freedom in India.”
“The authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Zubair and allow him to continue his journalistic work without further interference,” Butler said, according to a statement published on the CPJ website.
India ranks 150th in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, published by the press watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
On World Press Freedom Day last month, ten human rights groups said Indian authorities are prosecuting journalists and critics under tough laws for criticizing government policies.
Shortly after Zubair’s arrest, hashtags #IStandWithZubair and #ReleaseZubair started trending on twitter in India.
Rahul Gandhi, the main opposition leader of the Congress party, said: “Any person who exposes the hatred, bigotry and lies of the BJP is a threat to them (government)”.
“Arresting one voice of truth will only elicit a thousand more. Truth ALWAYS triumphs over tyranny,” wrote Gandhi.
Asaduddin Owaisi, MP and Muslim leader, said Zubair was arrested in “total breach of due process”.
“Delhi police are taking no action against anti-Muslim genocidal slogans but are swiftly cracking down on the ‘crime’ of reporting hate speech and countering misinformation,” he tweeted.
New Delhi-based academic and activist Apoorvanand said the arrest of Al Jazeera Zubair “makes it clear that this regime will not tolerate those who continue to expose the sources of hatred and violence in India”.
“Zubair was a journalist who constantly exposed half-truths or lies spread by this regime’s network,” said the professor of Hindi literature at Delhi University.
Two days before Zubair’s arrest, prominent Indian right-back Teesta Setalvad was arrested by the police counter-terrorism branch in Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Setalvad was picked up from her home in Mumbai hours after German Interior Minister Amit Shah, a close aide of Modi, accused her of giving police “unsubstantiated information” about the 2002 Gujarat violence involving at least 1,000 people , an overwhelming majority of them Muslims, were massacred when Modi was prime minister.
Setalvad was formally arrested on Sunday in what human rights organization Amnesty International called “direct reprisal against those who dare to question the government’s human rights record”.
Referring to the two arrests, Apoorvanand said: “This is a very dangerous moment for Indian democracy and the lowest point Indian democracy could have reached. Very alarming and the world needs to take note.”