The arrest of journalist and independent fact-checker Mohammad Zubair has led to outrage across the country with several press bodies reacting sharply to the development. Zubair, who is a co-founder of the fact-checking news portal Alt News, was arrested by Delhi Police on the evening of June 27 allegedly for hurting religious sentiments after a complaint by a social media user with regard to a tweet from 2018.
The move has led to outrage on social media with many demanding the immediate release of the social media warrior.
Why has Mohammad Zubair been arrested?
Special Cell of the Delhi Police on Monday Zubair on charges of promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and deliberate acts to outrage religious feelings of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
Zubair was arrested in connection with a tweet that had a questionable image with the purpose of deliberately insulting the god of a particular religion, the DCP said. The tweet apparently showed an image of a hotel signboard repainted from “Honeymoon Hotel” to “Hanuman Hotel”. The image is a screenshot from the 1983 Hrishikesh Mukherjee Bollywood classic 'Kissi Se Na Kehna'. the film was cleared by the Censor Board at the time. In the tweet, Zubair had written, "Before 2014: Honeymoon Hotel, After 2014: Hanuman Hotel", in an apparent dig to the BJP government that came into power in 2014.
As per reports, the complainant is a Twitter user who goes by the name "Hanuman Bhakt" on the microblogging site with an image of Lord Hanuman as his profile photo. Express reported that the handle had 400 followers on the night of Zubair's arrest.
As per a Delhi Police First Information Report (FIR), the tweet by Mohammed Zubair was "highly provocative and more than sufficient to incite feeling of hatred" among people.
Earlier this month, a case against Zubair was registered under sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, language, etc) and 295A (deliberate and malicious act intended to outrage religious feelings) of the IPC, K P S Malhotra, Deputy Commissioner of Police (Cyber Cell), said.
BJP leaders on Monday alleged Mohammad Zubair was a "jihadi" who incited violence and slammed the opposition for its criticism of the government over the arrest.
Sharp reaction from Press Bodies
The incident, which coincided with the G7 Summit in Germany attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi which stressed the need for safeguarding freedom of press and civil society, has drawn flak from the media, press bodies as well as a host of Opposition leaders.
The Editors Guild of India on Tuesday termed the arrest as "extremely disturbing" and demanded his immediate release.
"It is apparent that AltNews' alert vigilance was resented by those who use disinformation as a tool to polarise society and rake nationalist sentiments," the Guild said in a statement here.
"Zubair has been arrested under sections 153 and 295 of the Indian Penal Code. This is extremely disturbing because Zubair and his website AltNews have done some exemplary work over the past few years in identifying fake news and countering disinformation campaigns, in a very objective and factual manner," the Guild said.
The Editors Guild of India condemns the arrest of Muhammad Zubair, co-founder of the fact checking site AltNews, by the Delhi Police on June 27, for a tweet from 2018. EGI demands that the Delhi Police should immediately release Muhammad Zubair. pic.twitter.com/q9uYqFxaPA— Editors Guild of India (@IndEditorsGuild) June 28, 2022
It demanded that the Delhi Police should immediately release Zubair.
"This is necessary to buttress the commitments made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the G7 meet in Germany to ensure a resilient democracy by protecting online and offline content," the Guild statement said.
The Press Club of India also condemned the arrest. It highlighted how the arrest was against the "2022 Resilient Democracies" at the G7 summit just yesterday in Germany "which reiterated the commitment to guarding the freedom, independence and diversity of civil society actors and protecting the freedom of expressing opinions both online and offline".
The Press Club of India demands that Muhammad Zubair be released by the Delhi Police pic.twitter.com/e9I9D1tMjd— Press Club of India (@PCITweets) June 28, 2022
Earlier, a body of digital news media organisations had condemned Zubair's arrest and asked the Delhi Police to withdraw the case against him immediately.
“In a democracy, where every individual possesses the right to exercise the freedom of speech and expression, it is unjustifiable that such stringent laws are being used as tools against journalists, who have been accorded the role of playing watchdog against the misuse of institutions of the state,” a DIGIPUB statement said.
“DIGIPUB urges the Delhi Police to withdraw the case immediately. The use of such stringent laws being used as tools against journalists who are considered the fourth pillar of democracy must be stopped. We stand with Zubair,” the statement said.
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
International human rights NGO Amnesty also put out a strongly worded statement opposing the arrest.
The arrest of Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of @AltNews - an independent fact checking website, for a 2018 satirical tweet shows the danger facing human rights defenders has reached a crisis point in India.— Amnesty International (@amnesty) June 28, 2022
Aakar Patel, chair of board for Amnesty International India, said the Indian authorities are targeting Zubair for his crucial work to combat the rise in fake news and disinformation and call out discrimination against minorities. "The arrest of Mohammed Zubair shows the danger facing human rights defenders in India has reached a crisis point," Patel said in a statement.
Strongly criticising the deplorable act, eminent journalist Faye D'Souza tweeted," The arrest of @zoo_bear is another attempt to intimidate and silence the media. This sort of intimidation should have no place in a democracy. Release @zoo_bear."
Others such as Ravish Kumar have also voiced their displeasure against the attack on a member of civil society.
Opposition decries arrest
Not just the media, Zubair's arrest has also drawn flak from Opposition leaders. Congress' Rahul Gandhi said anyone exposing BJP's “hate bigotry and lies is a threat” to them.
“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. Truth ALWAYS triumphs over tyranny,” Gandhi wrote on Twitter, sharing a news report.
Every person exposing BJP's hate, bigotry and lies is a threat to them.— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) June 27, 2022
Arresting one voice of truth will only give rise to a thousand more.
Truth ALWAYS triumphs over tyranny. #DaroMatpic.twitter.com/hIUuxfvq6s
Trinamool Congress' Derek O'Brien called Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah “cowards” over Zubair’s arrest.
“Strongly condemn the arrest of one of the world’s finest journalists @zoo_bear who exposes the BJP’s #FakeNews factory every single day. PM @narendramodi and @AmitShah for the all power you wield, you are essentially COWARDS,” he tweeted.
Strongly condemn the arrest of one of the world’s finest journalists @zoo_bear who exposes the BJP’s #FakeNews factory every single day.— Derek O'Brien | ডেরেক ও'ব্রায়েন (@derekobrienmp) June 27, 2022
PM @narendramodi and @AmitShah for the all power you wield, you are essentially COWARDS.
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, who was among the firsts to react, said, “India’s few fact-checking services, especially Alt News, perform a vital service in our post-truth political environment, rife with disinformation. They debunk falsehoods, whoever perpetrates them. To arrest Mohammed Zubair is an assault on truth. He should be released immediately.”
India’s few fact-checking services, especially @AltNews, perform a vital service in our post-truth political environment, rife with disinformation. They debunk falsehoods whoever perpetrates them. To arrest @zoo_bear is an assault on truth. He should be released immediately.— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) June 27, 2022
AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi tweeted, "Arrest of@zoo_bear is highly condemnable. He’s been arrested with no notice & in some unknown FIR. Total violation of due process.@DelhiPolice does nothing about anti-Muslim genocidal slogans but acts swiftly against “crime” of reporting hate speech & countering misinformation."
Arrest of @zoo_bear is highly condemnable. He’s been arrested with no notice & in some unknown FIR. Total violation of due process. @DelhiPolice does nothing about anti-Muslim genocidal slogans but acts swiftly against “crime” of reporting hate speech & countering misinformation— Asaduddin Owaisi (@asadowaisi) June 27, 2022
Zubair has been hailed in the past for his contribution to maintaining media integrity and keeping a check on fake news by busting fake news videos and claims by social media users as well as politicians and parties. Arguing for his bail plea in court, Zubair's lawyer Vrinda Grover told that according to the fact-checker, he was being targeted for his "name and profession".