New Delhi, India – Police in the Indian capital have arrested journalist Mohammed Zubair on charges of hurting religious sentiments for a tweet he posted in 2018.
Zubair, co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News, was arrested on Monday evening in New Delhi and remanded for a day in police custody, officials and media reports said.
Zubair was arrested following a complaint by a Twitter handle @balajikijaiin this month, in which the concerned person alleged the 39-year-old Muslim journalist had insulted Hindus by commenting on the renaming of a hotel after the Hindu monkey god Hanuman.
His arrest came five days after Twitter received a request from the government claiming his account violated Indian laws.
Alt News’s other co-founder, Pratik Sinha, said on Twitter no notice was given to Zubair before his arrest.
“He is currently detained inside a police bus in Burari for more than an hour,” Sinha said, referring to a New Delhi neighbourhood where Zubair was to be produced before a magistrate authorised the arrest.
In another tweet, Sinha wrote: “After the medical examination, Zubair is being taken to an undisclosed location. Neither Zubair’s lawyers or I are being told where. We are in the police van with him. No police is wearing any name tag.”
Zubair, a former telecom engineer from the southern IT hub of Bengaluru, and Sinha, a software engineer from Ahmedabad, founded Alt News in 2017.
Since then, the website has busted numerous fake news stories, mostly pushed by Hindu right-wing portals, and claims made by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or its supporters.
Zubair and Sinha have been facing online trolling and police cases for their work for years.
I wonder why is the Delhi police in such tearing hurry to bring Zubair all the way from Dwarka to the residence of a duty magistrate in Burariat this hour? Why not just produce him before the regular court tomorrow before the 24 hours end that is not till tomorrow afternoon?
— Pratik Sinha (@free_thinker) June 27, 2022
Delhi Police spokeswoman Suman Nalwa confirmed Zubair’s arrest to Al Jazeera and said Section 153 (giving provocation with intent to cause a riot) and Section 295A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings) of the Indian Penal Code have been invoked against the journalist.
When asked about Sinha’s claims on Twitter that no prior notice was given or that Zubair was taken to an undisclosed location, Nalwa said: “I have not seen the tweets and I don’t respond to tweets.”
‘Another low for press freedom’
Journalists, activists and opposition leaders have condemned Zubair’s arrest, demanding his immediate release and calling the police move an “assault on truth”.
In a statement posted on Twitter, DIGIPUB News India Foundation, a network of digital media organisations, said the use of “stringent” laws as tools against journalists must stop.
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
Steven Butler, Asia programme coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said Zubair’s arrest “marks another low for press freedom in India”.
“Authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Zubair, and allow him to pursue his journalistic work without further interference,” Butler said, according to a statement posted on the CPJ website.
India ranks 150th on the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, published by the press watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
On World Press Freedom Day last month, 10 rights groups said Indian authorities were prosecuting journalists and critics under stringent laws for criticising the government’s policies.
Rahul Gandhi, the main opposition leader of the Congress party, said “every person exposing BJP’s hate, bigotry and lies is a threat to them (government)”.
“Arresting one voice of truth will only give rise to a thousand more. Truth ALWAYS triumphs over tyranny,” Gandhi wrote.
Asaduddin Owaisi, parliamentarian and leading Muslim politician, said Zubair has been arrested in “total violation of due process”.
“Delhi Police does nothing about anti-Muslim genocidal slogans but acts swiftly against ‘crime’ of reporting hate speech and countering misinformation,” he tweeted.
New Delhi-based academic and activist Apoorvanand told Al Jazeera Zubair’s arrest “makes it clear that this regime will not tolerate those who keep revealing the sources of hate and violence in India”.
“Zubair was one journalist who kept busting half truths or lies spread by the network of this regime,” said the professor of Hindi literature at Delhi University.
Two days before Zubair’s arrest, prominent Indian rights defender Teesta Setalvad was picked up by the anti-terrorism wing of the police in Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state.
Setalvad was picked up from her home in Mumbai hours after federal Home Minister Amit Shah, a close aide of Modi, accused her of giving “baseless information” to the police about the 2002 Gujarat violence, in which at least 1,000 people, an overwhelming majority of them Muslims, were massacred when Modi was the state chief minister.
Setalvad was formally arrested on Sunday, with rights group Amnesty International calling it a “direct reprisal against those who dare to question” the government’s human rights record.
Referring to the two arrests, Apoorvanand said: “This is very dangerous moment for Indian democracy and the lowest point the Indian democracy could have reached. Very alarming and the world must take notice of it.”