Indian authorities arrested the co-founder of a fact-checking website on Monday, rekindling concerns about deteriorating journalistic freedoms in the world’s largest democracy.
The journalist, Mohammed Zubair, was detained on charges of hurting religious feelings and promoting enmity between religious groups, New Delhi police said. The arrest came after an anonymous Twitter user complained that Mr Zubair, a Muslim, disrespected a Hindu god in a 2018 tweet.
Mr Zubair’s detention, journalists and activists said, is part of a wide-ranging crackdown on critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party’s Hindu nationalist worldview. It was even more shocking, they said, because Mr. Modi had just joined the leaders of the Group of 7 countries in Germany in campaigning for free and independent news media.
“This is extremely disturbing because Zubair and his website Alt News have done an exemplary job in recent years in identifying fake news and countering disinformation campaigns, in a very objective and factual way,” said the Editors Guild of India, a journalist group. said in a statement† His release is “necessary to substantiate the commitments” made by Mr Modi at the G7 meeting.
Zubair was an outspoken critic of Modi’s government and used Twitter to condemn Hindu activists and monks who called for the killing of Muslims. Recently, Mr. Zubair’s comments from an officer of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party which some considered offensive to the Prophet Muhammad.
Zubair, according to the Editors Guild, was summoned by police on Monday in connection with a 2020 case from which a court had granted him immunity. But he was arrested, according to the group, in connection with a criminal investigation that began earlier this month after the anonymous Twitter user’s complaint.
“The police’s allegations are factually false,” Zubair’s lawyer Vrinda Grover said during a bail hearing in a New Delhi court on Tuesday. “It’s coherent malicious targeting.”
The prosecutor said Mr Zubair had not cooperated with the police investigation and had posted several messages on Twitter that hurt religious feelings. The court ruled that Mr. Zubair has been held in police custody for four days as investigators try to get hold of his laptop and other computer equipment.
Over the weekend, Indian police arrested a prominent human rights activist, Teesta Setalvad, who led a crusade against government officials for their role in the 2002 sectarian riots that killed more than 1,000 people in the western state of Gujarat. Last month, 10 human rights and journalistic groups issued a statement saying that the Indian authorities are detaining more and more journalists and critics of the government.
Another sign of growing pressure on Indian journalists is the country’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index, which evaluates the landscape for journalists in 180 countries, down eight places this year to 150.
Last year, more than a dozen reporters were detained on charges of espionage and money laundering. In 2020, at least 67 journalists were detained by authorities across India.
Geeta Seshu, co-founder of Free Speech Collective, a media watchdog, said the continued crackdown on journalists was the most dangerous she had seen in many decades.
“What we are seeing today is a very disturbing trend of revenge politics, and the government is using all the weapons of the state machine to arrest and silence journalists who are critical of its policies,” she said. “This is not only to rob us of a democratic space of dissent, but it also cuts the way for journalists to ensure justice.”