NEW DELHI – India’s Supreme Court has granted bail to Mohammed Zubair, a prominent fact-checker and journalist who shed light on ruling party spokesman Nupur Sharma’s controversial comments against the Prophet Muhammad (as ).
The high court on Wednesday ordered that Zubair be immediately released from jail, saying there was no justification for keeping him in custody.
Since his arrest in late June following a tweet, Zubair had spent most of his time shuttling between prisons and courts.
He was moved by police in and out of a courtroom in Delhi and then, as new charges piled up against him, he was taken to a remote town on the Indo-Nepal border for investigation.
Delhi police arrested him on June 27 for a 2018 tweet for “insulting Hindu religious beliefs”. They later cited other charges against him, including criminal conspiracy, destruction of evidence and receipt of foreign funds.
A few days later, police in the state of Uttar Pradesh in the north of the country took him back into custody. They accused him of using an ‘offensive term – hatemongers’ to describe three Hindu religious leaders who were seen in videos engaging in hate speech, inciting violence against Muslims or threatening to violate Muslim women. On July 8, the Supreme Court granted him a five-day provisional release in this case after learning that he was the subject of death threats. The high court then extended his bail on July 12 and said a final hearing into the police complaint against him would be held on September 7.
On July 15, a Delhi court also granted him bail in the original case for which Delhi police arrested him. But he was still in custody due to the half-dozen cases brought against him by Uttar Pradesh police.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ordered Uttar Pradesh police to dismiss all complaints against Zubair and transfer them to Delhi police.
A telecommunications engineer based in the southern city of Bangalore, Zubair co-founded Alt News in 2017 with former software engineer Pratik Sinha to fight fake news.
Over the past five years, the website has played a key role in debunking claims that spread misinformation about religion, caste and unscientific myths.
With more than 3,000 articles that have been viewed more than 60 million times, Alt News has been in the crosshairs of the government since its creation in 2017, particularly because of its focus on fake videos and messages that target the minority Muslim community. from India.
A digital forensics expert, Zubair is known for tracking down the origins of unknown images and videos that are often distorted on social media and even mainstream media.
It’s unenviable work – hours spent sifting through photographs and videos of hate, violence, lies and propaganda.
Recently, he also began overseeing “UnHate” – a new Alt News project that documents hate speech.
Described as “a very determined and dedicated man” by those who know him, Mr Zubair is a prolific tweeter with over half a million followers and is regularly trolled and abused by accounts claiming to be Hindu nationalists.
Days before his arrest, he posted emails from Twitter saying some of his tweets criticizing Islamophobic comments by Hindu leaders were ‘withheld’ – meaning they cannot be seen in India – at the request law enforcement authorities.
In court, Zubair said he was arrested because of his work and because he is a Muslim.
Supreme Court barrister Colin Gonsalves, who represented Zubair in the highest court, told the BBC there was no case against the fact-checker and that he “is a thorn in the side of the government because it single-handedly tackles hate crimes”.
Police said they were also investigating questionable foreign remittances to his bank account – an allegation he denied.
Opposition leaders, journalists and activists criticized Zubair’s arrest, saying he was being harassed for constantly speaking out against religious bigots and hate mongers.
The timing of her arrest, critics pointed out, was linked to her widely shared tweet which highlighted Ms Sharma’s comments during a televised debate in late May.
His remarks infuriated Indian Muslims and put the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in a difficult diplomatic situation as several Muslim countries protested vigorously against India.
As calls grew for Ms Sharma’s arrest, the BJP dropped her as spokesperson, she went into hiding and police said they had stepped up security.
But Ms Sharma’s supporters on social media quickly began calling for Zubair’s arrest after she accused him of ‘inciting hatred against’ her, which had earned her ‘threats of rape and death” on Twitter.
Hashtags such as #arrestzubair started to become popular and exactly a month later Delhi police called him for questioning over a photo he had posted of a man accused of assault.
As the photograph showed a child sitting next to the man, police said it could be a case under the strict Child Sexual Harassment Act, POCSO. But the photograph of the child had been blurred as required by law.
Police later arrested him for a four-year-old tweet, commenting on a photograph of a hotel sign, changed from “Honeymoon Hotel” to “Hanuman Hotel”.
The complaint against him came from an anonymous Twitter account called Hanuman Bhakt, meaning worshiper of the monkey god Hanuman, which called Zubair’s tweet a “direct insult” to Hindus.
The anonymous account, created last October, had only one subscriber at the time of the complaint to the police. Following the police complaint, it was deactivated, but has now been relaunched and has over 2,240 subscribers.
Many have also questioned the motive for the arrest after learning that the photo was actually a screenshot from a 1983 Bollywood comedy by acclaimed director Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
In an editorial titled Theater of the Absurd, The Hindu newspaper wrote that Mr Zubair “was forced to pay for bringing wide attention to Ms Sharma’s despicable remarks” and described him as an example of “the intolerance and characteristic government resentment of fact-checkers”. who frequently expose his claims”.
International rights groups and the United Nations have also expressed concern over the arrest – a spokesman for UN chief Antonio Guterres recently said that “journalists should not be imprisoned for what ‘they write, tweet and say’.
Germany also weighed in on the issue – a Foreign Office spokesman said “journalists should not be persecuted and imprisoned for what they say and write”. India responded by saying that the matter was pending in court and that such “ill-informed comments are unnecessary and should be avoided”.
Critics say Mr Zubair was the latest in a long list of arrests of India’s best-known activists, intellectuals and journalists and point to India’s plummeting ranking in the World Health Index freedom of press. A recent report said that “pressure has grown on the media to toe the line of the Hindu nationalist government” and that “journalists who do not are being arrested and imprisoned”.
“Mr. Zubair should receive a medal for his service to the nation. Instead, he was imprisoned,” Mr. Gonsalves said. “His determination shows that one person can cause so much consternation to the hatemongers, imagine if there were 10 like him out there? Then the hatemongers would have nowhere to run.” —BBC