Police in India’s capital New Delhi have arrested a Muslim journalist for allegedly hurting religious sentiment in what critics say is the latest example of declining press freedom in the country under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of India’s leading fact-checking website Alt News, has long been in the crosshairs of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for his organisation’s relentless debunking of fake news and false claims mostly pushed by India’s Hindu supremacist groups.
This month, Modi’s government faced one of its worst diplomatic crises in recent years after two BJP officials made derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad and his wife Aisha.
More than a dozen Muslim nations, including Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members with whom New Delhi has strong ties, condemned the remarks and demanded an apology, forcing the BJP to issue a rare statement saying it “respects all religions”.
Zubair, who has more than half a million Twitter followers, was probably the first journalist to share a clip of the TV debate on a news channel in which the now-suspended BJP spokeswoman Nupur Sharma made the comments against the prophet.
While he did not name Sharma or tag her handle in his tweet, he questioned the news channel, its anchor and the network’s owner for allowing the incendiary remarks.
“I was more angry [with] the news anchor because they gave platform to her. After she uttered those words, they didn’t even stop her. I felt very bad, which is why when I tweeted, I didn’t mention Nupur Sharma’s name or her Twitter handle but was furious with the anchor and the news channel,” Zubair told Al Jazeera during a telephonic interview last week.
“I wanted to call them out. I was actually targeting the news channel.”
As the controversy snowballed into a major diplomatic crisis, many BJP supporters demanded Zubair’s arrest by running the hashtag #ArrestZubair on Twitter.
Earlier this month, police charged the 39-year-old journalist for calling some far-right Hindu monks “hatemongers”. The monks had made inflammatory statements about Muslims and at least one of them had called for a “genocide” of the minority community.
Zubair’s arrest on Monday also came five days after Twitter received a request from the Modi government, claiming his account had violated Indian laws.
Hailing from Bengaluru city in the southern state of Karnataka, Zubair worked as a software engineer with telecom giant Nokia for more than 10 years.
In 2017, he and Pratik Sinha, another software engineer from Ahmedabad in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, co-founded Alt News.
For at least a year, Zubair only assisted Sinha in running the site while continuing to work for Nokia. But in September 2018, he quit and joined Alt News as a full-time employee.
One of their first successes was when they busted a false claim made in a report by India’s federal home ministry showing floodlights along the tense Indian-Pakistan border.
The picture used in the report was from the Spain-Morocco border taken in 2006 by a Spanish photographer. The ministry was forced to issue a clarification.
The duo then went on to expose numerous false claims and fake news, often shared by BJP members or their supporters, for which they have faced incessant online trolling and even police cases in the last five years.
Exposing anti-Muslim narratives
The prophet dispute was not the first time Zubair had called out the increasing hate speech against India’s Muslim minority and Islam.
Earlier this year, he posted multiple videos of a controversial religious event organised by far-right Hindu monks in the northern city of Haridwar, where calls were made to Hindus to take up arms for a genocide of Muslims.
The viral video clips forced the police to file a First Information Report (FIR) against some speakers at the event and arrest several people, including hardline monk Yati Narsinghanand, who was later released on bail.
In April this year, Zubair shared another purported video clip showing Bajrang Muni Das, a controversial monk allegedly threatening to rape Muslim women while addressing a crowd in Uttar Pradesh’s Sitapur district. Das was arrested but soon granted bail.
Furious with such exposés, right-wing Hindus have openly called Zubair an “Islamist” and a “jihadist”, accusing him of targeting them and demanding action against him and his website.
Alt News has also worked with police in collecting evidence in cases of hate crimes.
In July last year, dozens of Muslim women in India found themselves “up for sale” on a mobile app called Sulli Deals. The app featured pictures of dozens of women, including activists and journalists, for “auction”, describing them as “deals of the day”.
In a similar incident last January, photos of more than 100 Muslim women, including prominent actress Shabana Azmi, wife of a sitting judge of the Delhi High Court, journalists, activists and politicians were seen on another app called Bulli Bai.
Sulli and Bulli are derogatory terms for Muslim women, while Bai means a housemaid.
Zubair and his organisation investigated the people behind the two apps by digging into their social media accounts, addresses available online and their internet histories.
It is because of such work the former telecom engineer says he is being targeted by right-wing Hindu groups and those close to the BJP.
Before he was arrested, Zubair had at least five FIRs against him. In September 2020, two FIRs were lodged against him – one in New Delhi and the other in Chhattisgarh state’s capital Raipur – under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act for alleged “online harassment and torture” of a minor girl.
To evade arrest for what he called politically motivated reasons, Zubair moved out of his house and lived away from his family for a month before a court assured him he would not be arrested.
“Everyone in my family was very scared for me and they even told me to quit this work or leave the house. They didn’t want me to leave the house but thought, maybe if we say so he might stop doing this work,” he told Al Jazeera.
‘Targeted for his Muslim identity’
Ziya Us Salam, a journalist with The Hindu newspaper and author, told Al Jazeera that Zubair does what mainstream Indian media has failed to do.
“The media had to call out the lies of the government or various political parties and leaders. It failed to do so. It was up to people like Zubair and others to expose those things and that is exactly what Zubair has done,” he said.
Alt News co-founder Sinha says while he and Zubair have been targeted in multiple ways, he claims his colleague is “mainly being targeted for his Muslim identity”.
“Zubair is a very committed person to his work and principles,” Sinha told Al Jazeera.
“Threat is always there and it would continue to be there, especially for Zubair because he is a vocal Muslim voice. The people especially within BJP and supporters detest vocal independent Muslim voices so they will do everything they can do to suppress one such voice.”
Since the prophet remarks controversy, Zubair says the threats against him and his family had increased.
“This time, I think the threats are serious because a lot of people felt bad, thinking that India had to bow down. They felt bad that Nupur was getting threats and they think it all happened because of me and I am the only person responsible for this,” he said.
Despite the threats, Zubair said if given a choice between his telecom career and the fact checking he does, he will choose the latter.
“I would want to continue because, be it fact checking or calling out hate mongering or reporting hate speeches, unfortunately not many are reporting them,” he said.-Al Jazeera