Who is Mohammed Zubair, Indian journalist arrested by Modi’s government? | Press Freedom News

New Delhi, India – Police in India’s capital New Delhi have arrested a Muslim journalist for allegedly offending religious sentiments in what critics say is the latest example of the country’s deterioration in press freedom under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of India’s leading fact-checking website, Alt News, has long been in the crosshairs of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for his organization’s relentless debunking of fake news and false claims promoted primarily by India’s Hindu supremacist groups.

This month, Modi’s government faced one of its worst diplomatic crises in years after two BJP officials made derogatory remarks against Prophet Muhammad and his wife Aisha.

More than a dozen Muslim nations, including members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with which New Delhi has close ties, condemned the comments and demanded an apology, forcing the BJP to issue a rare statement saying that they “all religions respected”.

Zubair, who has more than half a million Twitter followers, was probably the first journalist to share a clip of the TV debate on a news channel, in which the now-suspended BJP spokeswoman Nupur Sharma made the anti-Prophet comments.

While he didn’t name Sharma or tag her name in his tweet, he questioned the news channel, its host and the network’s owner for allowing the inflammatory remarks.

“I was more angry [with] the news anchor because they gave her a platform. After she said those words, they didn’t even stop her. I felt very bad, so when I tweeted, I didn’t mention Nupur Sharma’s name or her Twitter handle, but was angry at the moderator and the news channel,” Zubair told Al Jazeera in a phone interview last week.

“I wanted to call her. I actually had my sights set on the news channel.”

As the controversy escalated into a major diplomatic crisis, many BJP supporters called for Zubair’s arrest using the hashtag #ArrestZubair on Twitter.

Earlier this month, police accused the 39-year-old journalist of calling some far-right Hindu monks “hatemongers”. The monks had made inflammatory statements against Muslims and at least one of them had called for “genocide” against the minority.

Zubair’s arrest on Monday also came five days after Twitter received a request from the Modi government alleging his account violated Indian laws.

Hailing from the city of Bengaluru in the southern state of Karnataka, Zubair worked for more than 10 years as a software developer at telecommunications giant Nokia.

In 2017, he and Pratik Sinha, another software developer from Ahmedabad in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, co-founded Alt News.

For at least a year, Zubair only assisted Sinha in running the website while continuing to work for Nokia. But in September 2018, he quit and joined Alt News as a full-time employee.

One of their first successes was when they refuted a false claim in a report by India’s Federal Ministry of the Interior that showed floodlights along the tense India-Pakistan border.

The image used in the report was taken in 2006 by a Spanish photographer on the border between Spain and Morocco. The Ministry felt compelled to issue a clarification.

The duo then uncovered numerous false claims and fake news, often shared by BJP members or their supporters, for which they have faced non-stop online trolling and even police proceedings over the past five years.

Journalist from Alt News India
A photo of a computer screen shows the Alt News home page [Manish Swarup/AP]

Exposing anti-Muslim narratives

The Prophets’ Controversy wasn’t the first time Zubair has launched increasing hate speech against India’s Muslim minority and Islam.

Earlier this year, he released several videos of a controversial religious event organized by far-right Hindu monks in the northern city of Haridwar, calling on Hindus to take up arms in a genocide against Muslims.

The viral video clips forced police to file a First Information Report (FIR) against some speakers at the event and arrested several people, including hard-line monk Yati Narsinghanand, who was later released on bail.

In April this year, Zubair shared another alleged video clip showing Bajrang Muni Das, a controversial monk who allegedly threatened to rape Muslim women while speaking to a crowd in Uttar Pradesh’s Sitapur district. Das was arrested but soon released on bail.

Furious at such exposés, right-wing Hindus have openly labeled Zubair an “Islamist” and “jihadist”, accusing him of targeting them and calling for action against him and his website.

Alt News has also worked with the police to gather evidence in hate crime cases.

In July last year, dozens of Muslim women in India were “for sale” via a mobile app called Sulli Deals. The app featured images of dozens of women, including activists and journalists, at the “auction,” describing them as “the deals of the day.”

In a similar incident last January, photos of more than 100 Muslim women, including prominent actress Shabana Azmi, wife of a sitting Delhi High Court judge, journalists, activists and politicians, were seen on another app called Bulli Bai.

Sulli and Bulli are derogatory terms for Muslim women, while Bai means housemaid.

Zubair and his organization researched the people behind the two apps by scouring their social media accounts, addresses available online, and internet history.

The former telecoms engineer says his work has been targeted by right-wing Hindu groups and circles close to the BJP.

Prior to his arrest, Zubair had at least five FIRs against him. In September 2020, two FIRs were filed against him – one in New Delhi and the other in the Chhattisgarh state capital, Raipur – under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act (POCSO) for alleged “online harassment and torture” of a minor girls.

To avoid arrest on political grounds, Zubair moved out of his home and lived apart from his family for a month before a court assured him he would not be arrested.

“Everyone in my family was very scared for me and they even told me to quit this job or leave the house. They didn’t want me to leave the house but thought maybe if we say so he’ll stop this job,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Targeted because of his Muslim identity”

Ziya Us Salam, a journalist with The Hindu newspaper and author, told Al Jazeera that Zubair is doing what mainstream Indian media has failed to do.

“The media had to denounce the lies of the government or various political parties and leaders. This did not work. It was up to people like Zubair and others to uncover these things, and that’s exactly what Zubair did,” he said.

Alt News co-founder Sinha says while he and Zubair have been targeted in various ways, he claims his colleague is being “attacked primarily because of his Muslim identity.”

“Zubair is a very committed person to his work and his principles,” Sinha told Al Jazeera.

“The threat is always there and would continue to be there, especially for Zubair because he is a vocal Muslim voice. The people, especially within the BJP, and their supporters detest loud independent Muslim voices, so they will do whatever it takes to suppress such a voice.”

According to Zubair, threats against him and his family have increased since controversy surrounding the Prophet’s statements.

“This time I think the threats are serious because a lot of people felt bad and thought India had to bow down. They felt bad that Nupur received threats and they think it all happened because of me and I’m the only person responsible for it,” he said.

Despite the threats, Zubair said if given the choice between his telecoms career and fact-checking, he would choose the latter.

“I’d love to continue because whether it’s fact checking or inciting hate speech or reporting hate speech, unfortunately not many are reporting it,” he said.