Journalist arrested in Delhi over a tweet posted four years ago
Mohammad Zubair is co-founder of AltNews, a fact-checking website created in 2017. Multiple criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi goes back to the pogrom of 2002. Twitter is struggling with India’s requests to block tweets and accounts.
Delhi (AsiaNews) – Independent journalism are not doing well in Asia. After the Philippine authorities ordered the closure of the Rappler news website, founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, and some international news agencies were banned from the ceremony marking Hong Kong’s handover to China, a journalist was arrested in India for allegedly inciting sectarian hate.
Mohammed Zubair is the co-founder of the AltNews, a fact-checking website, which has in recent years debunked propaganda by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu ultranationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In Delhi police arrested Zubair over a 2018 tweet, reportedly informed by an anonymous account that no longer exists. For his part, Zubair has been under pressure for years, as has Twitter itself, which this week made a number of accounts inaccessible to Indian users at the request of the government.
In 2018 Zubair tweeted the picture of a hotel that appeared in a 1983 Hindi comedy with a signboard that read “Before 2014: Honeymoon Hotel After 2014: Hanuman Hotel.” Hanuman, a Hindu god and a divine vanara (monkey) companion of the god Rama, has become a symbol used by right-wing Hindu nationalists on social media.
On 19 June, an anonymous Twitter account, Hanuman Bakhat, tweeted a comment claiming that Zubair’s tweet was insulting and tagged it to the Delhi police.
As the Scroll news website reports, Hanuman Bakht was created in October 2021, did not follow anyone, had only three followers and had never tweeted before. After Zubair’s arrest on 20 June, the account was deleted.
Zubair was not immediately informed of the complaint filed against him, his lawyers said; instead, he was summoned to a police station to discuss a previous legal case and was arrested on the spot.
According to Delhi police, the journalist was not cooperative when asked to hand over his computer and mobile phone.
Zubair’s tweets and AltNew’s articles had already attracted the attention of BJP loyalists. In recent months, for example, the Twitter account Hakw Eye had unleashed a campaign against Zubair using the ArrestMohammadZubair hashtag.
In recent weeks, Zubair’s tweets about Nupur Shurma, the BJP former spokeswoman who was relieved of her duties for making insulting comments about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, created ripple effects internationally.
Faced with requests from the Indian government, Twitter complied and blocked a number of individual tweets.
India claims the right to block online content to defend its sovereignty and national security but according to human rights groups, its definition of defence is so broad that more often than not it leads to outright censorship of government critics.
Lumen, a public database, publishes content removal requests to Twitter from governments; for the period January to June 2021, 11 per cent of requests were submitted by India.
Although Twitter in India is not a big, it has a strong impact on the political narrative and many journalists believe it is the reason for the government’s relentlessness against the microblogging and social networking service.
In the first half of 2020 for example, Facebook’s compliance rate with Indian requests was 50 per cent while Twitter’s was only 1 per cent. But India’s control does not stop at online platforms.
In a country where print media are still important, newspapers that tried to publish fact-checking articles and criticism of the government in the past have lost advertising funding from large companies close to Modi.
Zubair started out as a telecoms engineer, not as a journalist, but he was passionate about social media. AltNews only began its fact-checking activity in 2017 after Zubair met with Pratik Sinha, a software engineer who grew up in Gujarat.
Sinha witnessed Modi’s political evolution from the time he was Gujarat’s chief minister between 2001 and 2014.
The first disinformation campaigns began after the Gujarat pogroms in 2002 that culminated in a crackdown against the Muslim population and the killing of more than 2,000 people (although official figures acknowledge only half as many).
Sinha’s parents had actively exposed government shortcomings, showing how the authorities had turned a blind eye to the violence and human rights violations. By the time their findings were published in 2013 it was already too late: Modi was on the way up, and his closest associate, Amit Shah, who was arrested in 2010, served only three months in prison, and since 2019, has been the Union (federal) Home Affairs minister in Modi’s cabinet.
It is no coincidence that Zubair’s arrest comes about a week after that of journalist and activist Teesta Setalvad who was taken into custody after the Supreme Court upheld the conclusions of a committee that had cleared Prime Minister Narendra Modi of complicity in the 2002 violence.
The counter-terrorism wing of the Gujarat police arrested Setalvad on charges of “committing forgery and fabricating evidence”. Despite appeals from international human rights agencies, she, like Zubair, is still in jail.
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