Mohammed Zubair, journalist, fact checker, and co-founder of the website Alt News, was arrested on June 27 for reportedly “hurting religious sentiments” in a tweet posted in 2018 that was recently retweeted from an anonymous Twitter handle. Zubair, who has been on the radar of the powers that be for consistently exposing fake news, became a target after he shared a clip of BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma’s controversial television comment on Prophet Muhammad. Ironically, Sharma remains free till date while Zubair was arrested. On July 8, the Supreme Court granted him interim bail in a different case filed against him in June.
Zubair’s work with Alt News involves tracking fake news and misinformation. He filters, fact-checks, and debunks news material that could potentially instigate conflict, violate rights, or just be false. His supporters say there have been instances when Alt News’s intervention has prevented communal or caste flare-ups.
Zubair’s case points to a pattern: the determined pursuit of people who question the establishment or expose the truth; the fabrication of cases; the filing of FIRs either in New Delhi, where the police are under the Union Home Ministry, or in Uttar Pradesh, a BJP stronghold; the involvement of other Central agencies so that if one case collapses another keeps the victim in jail; the circumventing of provisions of the Information Technology Act, 2000, that address free speech on the Internet but disallow arrests based on vague complaints. Finally and most disturbingly (in Zubair’s case), the police’s knowledge of the rejection of his bail even before the court announced it.
Sources say 40 to 50 FIRs have been filed against Sharma, but the police is yet to take her into custody. Meanwhile, Zubair has been charged under IPC Section 153-A (promoting enmity between different groups) and 295-A (malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings). Following his arrest, the Delhi Police added criminal conspiracy, destruction of evidence, and violation of Section 35 of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act to the FIR against him. These charges will allow the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to enter the probe.
Zubair’s purported crime dates to March 2018, when he tweeted an image from a film which shows a Hindi signboard painted over to read “Hanuman Hotel” instead of “Honeymoon Hotel”. His tweet said: “Before 2014: Honeymoon Hotel. After 2014 Hanuman Hotel.”
The FIR was filed by the Delhi Police after an anonymous Twitter handle kept tagging them for weeks about Zubair’s post. The complainant apparently felt Zubair had “deliberately insulted the God of a particular religion”. After the arrest, a part of the strategy seems to be to keep adding cases against the accused so that it becomes difficult to procure bail.
On July 5, Zubair was taken into 14 days’ judicial custody in connection with a different case filed in Uttar Pradesh in which he allegedly referred to three people who are already charged with hate-mongering as “hatemongers”.
Anand Yagnik, a human rights lawyer based in Ahmedabad, says: “It is getting more and more absurd. Zubair was always on the radar and they were after him for some time. What has he done that is offensive? He has written something that is factually correct. Has he created anything fake? It was an image with some juxtaposition and he pointed it out. You cannot impose charges on journalists so freely. Or is it because he is Muslim? If you read the FIR, it fails to make a case.”
Above all, says Yagnik, Zubair’s fundamental right to freedom of expression has been violated. He points to a Supreme Court judgment of 1962 [Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar] which says that every section of the IPC and CrPC must be viewed from the perspective of the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution, one of which is “freedom of expression”. Freedom of expression is governed subject to a few exceptions, and one of them is public disorder. Therefore, all the sections of IPC, including 153 under which Zubair is charged, must be examined in this context.
Yagnik explains: “The larger test by the Supreme Court is that if by exercising your freedom of expression you have caused any prejudice to public disorder then you can be prosecuted. In this circumstance, the fact is there was no disorder post his tweet. On the other hand, the entire country was in fire after Nupur Sharma’s comment. The public unrest continues because Nupur Sharma is not arrested.”
The Wire report
On July 4, the digital news portal, The Wire, released an investigative report that linked Zubair’s case directly to the BJP. Backing their claim with data, The Wire said: “The arrest is the culmination of a years-long campaign by a network of anonymous and inauthentic accounts linked to Vikash Ahir, state president of the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) and co-convener of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) in Gujarat.”
In their analysis, the reporters say “they uncovered a network of 757 accounts linked to Ahir that have attempted—since 2018—to incriminate the fact-checker alongside Pratik Sinha, co-founder at Alt News, by highlighting and misconstruing old tweets uploaded by the two journalists to portray them as ‘Hinduphobic’ and then tagging the local authorities in order to have the two journalists arrested for supposedly hurting religious sentiments.”
A rights activist, speaking anonymously, said he hoped the report would be considered in court. He said the current climate of targeting those who do not agree with the ruling regime places Zubair in a similar situation to others such as student leader Umar Khalid who has been in jail for over two years for confronting the government.
Recent arrests have shown that it will take a gargantuan effort by a strong defence team to secure their release because even if they get out on one count, there are still several other charges ranged against them.
Origins of Alt News
Alt News was set up in 2017 as a watchdog to combat the spread of fake news on various media platforms, particularly digital.
Pratik Sinha and Zubair have been relentless in their pursuit of exposing content that manipulates and changes narratives with the singular purpose of destabilising the communal fabric of the country. In an interview to Frontline in August 2018, Sinha had said the editorial team had put together a scientific and technically strong system which meticulously searches, monitors, retraces and verifies the fake news item or misinformation that comes to their notice. He said they used certified software to monitor sites which put out factually incorrect material.
The Alt News website gives every detail of the methodology, team and funds used for its work. The website has released a statement that it does not receive foreign funding as alleged by the police.
Both Sinha and Zubair have a massive following on social media. These include both supporters who ask Alt News to verify news as well as trolls. Sinha and Zubair have remained steadfast in their aim to expose the lies that rule the Internet, which has become a major drawback of the Internet.
Sinha’s activism has deep roots. His father Mukul Sinha led the Jan Sangharsh Manch, which fought for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat communal pogrom and continues to fight for the rights of the marginalised. After the riots, Mukul Sinha along with Pratik created the “Truth of Gujarat” Facebook page. It is thus not surprising that they have made enemies in powerful places.
Attempts by the State and Central government to muzzle Sinha and Zubair have failed in the past. This time the ambush was sudden and seems to taken even Sinha and Zubair by surprise. “They have done nothing wrong. The law will hopefully protect them,” said a close associate of Sinha’s.