The arrest of journalist and 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 AltNews, 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 arrest comes after days of protests and social media campaigning against Zubair which gained strength following the Nupur Sharma controversy regarding derogatory comments on Prophet Mohammad. Even before the arrest, hashtags such as #arrestzubair and #istandwithzubair had trended several times. On Twitter, Zubair is a celebrity both loved and hated. On Tuesday, ahead of his bail hearing, Zubair gave a statement that while many tweeted the image that he was in trouble for, the case was against him due to his name and his profession.
"Many have tweeted the same, the only difference between those handles and mine is my faith, my name and my profession," Zubair’s lawyer Vrinda Grover said in court on Tuesday, Zubair being a Muslim and a journalist.
But who is Mohammad Zubair and what does he do?
Mohammad Zubair is the co-founder of fact-checking website AltNews, which he started along with former software engineer Pratik Sinha in 2017 to combat the rising menace of fake news.
Since its inception, the not-for-profit AltNews has cracked down on fake news and played a key role in busting communal, casteist and unscientific claims. It has specially been vocal against the myriad fake news videos and WhatsApp forwards targeting minorities in India and against the policies of the current government that muzzle freedom of press and freedom of speech and expression. Its founders often face online trolling and threats by right-wing groups, some of them linked to the BJP.
At the time of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2019 after the Tablighi Jamat gathering was deemed a super-spreader event, AltNews played a key role in busting myths and fake news videos about Muslims spreading Covid-19 on purpose.
AltNews has also been at the forefront of fact-checking communal and casteist claims made by unruly elements on social media. It was AltNews that highlighted hate speeches made by Hindu 'seers' at a recent gathering in Haridwar. The platform also notably identified individuals running the Hindu right-wing website DainikBharat.org. According to the BBC, a report by Alt News in June 2017 demonstrating that the Indian Home Ministry had used a picture of the Spanish-Moroccan border to claim it had installed floodlights on India's borders led to the ministry being trolled online.
Alt News founders have compiled a list of more than 40 “fake news sources” on social media, most of which support right wing views. The Alt News team has written a book titled "India Misinformed: The True Story”, which was published by HarperCollins and released in March 2019.
The co-founders Zubair and Sinha were recently named by Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) in its yearly shortlist for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Complaints and hate campaigns
Alt News and its co-founder Sinha and Zubair have long been at loggerheads with the Indian right-wing on Twitter, who have often called for their arrest. The hate campaign against Zubair gathered strength this month after he highlighted comments made by BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma on the Prophet. The comments gained widespread condemnation against India, leading the BJP to distance itself from Sharma and her views.
Earlier in June, the Uttar Pradesh police lodged an FIR against Zubair for allegedly hurting religious sentiments by referring to Mahant Bajrang Muni ‘Udasin’, Yati Narsinghanand and Swami Anand Swarup as “hatemongers” on Twitter after videos showed them making inflammatory and divisive statements against minorities in India. The complaint was filed by Bhagwan Sharan, the Sitapur unit chief of a right-wing organisation named Hindu Sher Sena.
Why Zubair has been arrested now
Special Cell of the Delhi Police on Monday arrested 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). He was sent to four days of custody on Tuesday.
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 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. The Indian Express reported that the handle had 400 followers on the night of Zubair's arrest.
As per the Delhi Police’s First Information Report (FIR), the tweet by Zubair was "highly provocative and more than sufficient to incite feeling of hatred" among people.
Why Zubair’s arrest is a matter of concern
India’s rank fell eight places to 150 among 180 countries in this year’s Press Freedom Index published by watchdog group Reporters Without Borders.
“Indian journalists who are too critical of the government are subjected to all-out harassment and attack campaigns,” it noted in its 2022 edition, adding that reporters were regularly exposed to police violence and increasing reprisals from officials.
Zubair’s arrest comes two days after lawyer and human rights activist Teesta Setalvad was arrested by the Gujarat state police’s anti-terrorism wing.
Setalvad was arrested on Saturday for allegedly “committing forgery and fabricating evidence” in a case about the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat state. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was then the chief minister of Gujarat, has denied the charges against him, and has been cleared of complicity after government investigators and courts ruled there is no evidence against him.
A 2021 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists indicated that India “has the highest number of journalists –four– confirmed to have been murdered in retaliation for their work”. It also noted that six journalists in India were detained on “anti-state” charges, as reported by Newslaundry. These include Aasif Sultan, Siddique Kappan, Anand Teltumbe, Gautam Navlakha, Manan Dar and Rajeev Sharma. The report lists journalist Tanveer Warsi as detained under “retaliatory” charges.
The arrest has been decried by several activists, journalist, Opposition leaders as well press bodies as a "disturbing" act and an attack on press freedom. The Editors Guild of India on Tuesday termed the arrest as "extremely disturbing" and demanded his immediate release.
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".
(With inputs from AP/PTI)