Mohammed Zubair, Indian journalist, arrested for Twitter posts

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NEW DELHI — Mohammed Zubair, a Muslim Indian journalist and prominent critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was arrested Monday over posts he made on Twitter, with press freedom groups quick to denounce the allegations.

Zubair, co-founder of fact-checking site Alt News, was charged with “deliberate and malicious acts in outrage of religious sentiment” over a post he shared in 2018 that referred to the Hindu god Hanuman. He was sentenced to four days in prison late Tuesday.

The arrest came weeks after Zubair, who has more than half a million Twitter followers, rose to international prominence by drawing attention to controversial statements about the Prophet Muhammad by an official of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. BJP spokeswoman Nupur Sharma’s derogatory comments about Mohammed’s marriages drew widespread condemnation from the Islamic world and an apology from the Indian government.

The timing of Zubair’s arrest – and the nature of the charges – have raised suspicions that he faces retribution as the Modi government and its supporters increasingly hit back at critics active on social media. In recent years, Indian authorities have arrested opposition politicians for their tweets and pressured Twitter to remove posts by protesting farmers criticizing Modi.

In 2021, the government also asked Twitter to censor tweets by advocacy group Freedom House that wrote negatively about the Indian government, tech blog Enttrackr and news outlet Press Trust of India reported this week, citing a new Twitter document.

Zubair said last week that he had received a notice from Twitter that the Indian government had told the social media company that his account — in its entirety and not specific tweets — “violated the laws of India.”

A police investigation into Zubair’s account was sparked by a tweet earlier this month from an anonymous account calling a 2018 post by Zubair about the name of a hotel, according to local media. “Before 2014: Honeymoon Hotel,” read the tweet. “After 2014: Hanuman Hotel.”

The anonymous account – which used the name Hanuman Bhakt, an apparent reference to the Hindu god mentioned in Zubair’s post – asked the Delhi police to “kindly take action against this guy”. Linking the allegedly celibate Hanuman to “Honeymoon” is a “direct insult to Hindus,” the account said in a tweet last week.

Suman Nalwa, a spokeswoman for the Delhi Police, confirmed in a telephone interview that the charges were based on Zubair’s Twitter posts. “He had posted some things on his Twitter profile that were demeaning to a community,” she said. “They were very provocative and it is believed he did it on purpose.”

Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, a non-profit organization campaigning for press freedom around the world, said in a statement: “The arrest of journalist Mohammad Zubair marks another low point for press freedom in India, where the government has created a hostile and unsafe environment for members of the press reporting on sectarian issues. The authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Zubair and allow him to continue his journalistic work without further interference.”

Digipub, a group of news sites in India, too sentenced the arrest, saying, “It cannot be justified that such strict laws should be used as tools against journalists.” The Press Club of India called Modi hypocritical for signing the same day a Group of Seven pledge promising to protect “freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief” and to promote “inter-religious dialogue”.

Modi has been widely criticized for taking a Hindu nationalist approach to managing religious tensions in India and for his treatment of the country’s Muslim minority population. In 2002, when he was chief minister of Gujarat state, he was accused of inaction after 1,000 to 2,000 Muslims were brutally killed by communal violence.

Communal clashes have escalated across India in recent months, and tensions over Sharma’s comments about the Prophet have had deadly consequences. On Tuesday, two men in Rajasthan state hacked to death a tailor who took to social media to support the BJP spokeswoman. The killing, recorded by the two perpetrators, sparked mass protests in the western city of Udaipur, where police cut internet service in a bid to quell the unrest.

Zubair has used social media to expose anti-Muslim hate speech in the past and was previously reprimanded by police for a tweet invoking Hindu right-wing activists, according to Digipub.

Pratik Sinha, who co-founded Alt News with Zubair, said his colleague was arrested despite previously receiving protection from the Supreme Court and that neither he nor Zubair were properly informed of his arrest “despite repeated requests”.

Pietsch reported from Seoul. Amy Cheng contributed to this report.