Monday, Aug 08, 2022

Press Bodies Wake Up To Threat After Arrests of Setalvad and Zubair

The Press Club of India (PCI), Mumbai Press Club (MPC) and Editors Guild of India (EGI) swung into action, condemning the arrest and demanding the release of the journalist, who was arrested on charges of hurting religious sentiments.

Press freedom (Representative image)
Press freedom (Representative image)

Support started pouring in from press bodies, human rights activists, journalists and watchdog bodies, after Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of crowdfunded fact-checking website AltNews was arrested by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police on Monday. The arrest came just a few days after rights activist and journalist Teesta Setalvad were detained by the Gujarat ATS from Mumbai. 

The Press Club of India (PCI), Mumbai Press Club (MPC) and Editors Guild of India (EGI) on Tuesday swung into action, condemning the arrest and demanding the release of the journalist, who was arrested on charges of hurting religious sentiments.

Mumbai Press Club, in their statement, said, "Zubair should be released immediately. We also request Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah's immediate intervention in this matter." The Press Club, in its statement, pointed out that the action against the scribe came “ironically” on a day when India joined G7 and four other countries to protect free speech "online and offline". "The action by the Delhi Police in hastily arresting Muhammad Zubair showed the blatant violation of the country's commitment on the global platform given by none other than the prime minister himself," the PCI statement added. The Editors Guild of India condemned the arrest and termed it "extremely disturbing".

But how far will these statements come to the aid of the fact-checker who is in police custody? A journalist, not wishing to be named told the Outlook, “These statements, laden with sturdy words, are only symbolic, and offer no tangible help.”

“These bodies should do much more, for instance extending legal help,” the disgruntled journalist added.
According to the 2021 annual prison census conducted by the Committee to Protect Journalists, seven journalists were detained in India as of December 1, 2021, setting the country’s record for the highest number of detained journalists since at least 1992. These arrests have come in the wake of India’s plummeting Press Freedom Index over the years. Currently, the Press Freedom Index prepared by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) places India at 150 out of 180 countries—worse than Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Turkey.

Amid this, several press bodies told Outlook that issuing timely statements plays an indispensable role in spreading widespread awareness, especially through social media.

Mahtab Alam, the independent journalist and researcher, told the Outlook that putting out statements helps in more ways than one. “Firstly, it extends solidarity,” Alam says, adding, “When a journalist is under duress, letting him know he is not alone matters a lot.”

Alam believes that documentation of incidents of intimidation, harassment, summoning and detention of journalists is very necessary. “Statements put things on record,” Alam says.

“Further,” says Alam, “Statements lend some sort of credibility to the journalist who is under duress.”

“Whether the statements force the government agencies to act, lies beyond the domain of the press bodies. They can do only their bit,”  he says, adding, “There are organisations like Digital Patrakar Defence Clinic that lend pro bono legal advice, assistance, and representation to Indian Journalists.”

Gurbir Singh, Chairman, Mumbai Press Club believes that issuing timely statements condemning brutality in the press is indispensable for creating widespread awareness, especially on social media. “When we published a statement regarding Teesta Setalvad, it got nearly 500,000 views on Twitter and was retweeted more than 1,700 times,” Singh tells Outlook, adding “On social media, you get much more visibility, and it is faster than TV and newspapers.”

Scores of social media users had called out the press bodies for releasing statements in solidarity with Setalvad, who was arrested for purportedly forging and manipulating evidence in a 2002 Gujarat Riots case. Some netizens, who did not know that before becoming a full-time activist, Setalvad had spent nearly two decades working actively as a journalist, questioned press bodies for supporting someone who was “not a journalist”.

Clearing the air, Mumbai Press Club wrote in their statement, “After nearly two decades in journalism, Teesta became an active human rights defender and had been serving as the secretary of the civil rights body Citizens for Peace and Justice.”

The Mumbai Press Club had also pointed out that remarks by the Supreme Court bench against some “functionaries” who had “kept the pot boiling” had been used by Gujarat Police to make this arrest.

“Garnering, mobilising support and spreading awareness is something that press bodies are dedicated to,” Singh tells Outlook.

“However,” says Singh, “Issuing statements cannot be a standalone activity of press bodies, they should definitely do more.”

A senior journalist, who has been in the industry for nearly four decades, tells Outlook that even though the ritual of putting out statements is not effective in deterring governments, it doesn’t mean statements are not important.

“We need to speak up,” he says, adding, “Otherwise, our silence will be taken as acquiescence. And speaking up nowadays is not very easy”.