Indian journalist arrested in worsening press freedom climate
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the arrest of Mohammed Zubair, the cofounder of the fact-checking website Alt News. Following his arrest in Delhi on 27 June in connection with a 2018 tweet, on 28 June, a court ordered him held for another four days. The persecution of Zubair comes amid an increase in restrictions on journalists in India.
“There no longer seems to be any limit to the judicial harassment of Mohammed Zubair,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “The way he is being treated is sadly indicative of the ongoing crackdown on independent media in India. We call on the authorities to free him at once and put a stop to the intimidation of journalists.”
Mohammed Zubair was arrested on the basis of a social media user’s complaint about a humorous 2018 tweet showing a hotel in a screengrab from an old film in which the “Honeymoon Hotel” sign had been replaced by “Hanuman Hotel.” On the grounds that Hanuman is the name of a Hindu deity, he is accused of “hurting religious sentiments” and “promoting enmity.”
Alt News co-founder Pratik Sinha said Zubair was not notified about the complaint prior to his arrest, an omission that violated legal requirements. His detention has been extended by four days so that the police can travel with him to his hometown, the southern city of Bangalore, to examine the laptop he used to post the tweet.
In his journalism and tweets, Zubair often draws attention to fake news and hate messages targeting India’s Muslim minority. In May, he drew attention to controversial comments about the Prophet Muhammad by Nupur Sharma, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s spokesperson, which triggered violent riots in India and strong diplomatic protests from many Muslim countries. Sharma was eventually relieved of her position.
Ultra-nationalist Hindu groups have been calling for Zubair’s arrest for months and, in early June, the police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh investigated him in connection with a tweet in which he referred to certain well-known members of the Indian far right as “hatemongers.”
The fact-checker journalist has already been targeted several times in court cases. Just a year ago, he, along with Washington Post columnist Rana Ayyub and writer Saba Naqvi, were charged with “criminal conspiracy” for tweeting about a video of a man being beaten up by other men.
Social media restrictions
This latest example of judicial harassment of Zubair comes amid a disturbing increase in restrictions on independent journalists in India, especially via social media. Zubair himself had reported on 25 June that Twitter had withheld one of his tweets at the government’s request under India’s 2000 Information Technology Act.
And Ayyub reported on 26 June that an April 2021 tweet by her about the opening of an investigation into a mosque in Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, had been withheld by Twitter on the same grounds.
According to a Lumen database document of 26 June, the Indian government asked Twitter to block several US non-profit Freedom House tweets last year about the decline in Internet freedom in India that it described in its 2020 report.
These withdrawals and withdrawal requests reflect a desire on the part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to exercise more control over social media. Controversial proposed changes to the IT law published on 6 June include the creation of a government panel to hear appeals against social media companies' content moderation decisions.