A Muslim journalist, who has been relentlessly reporting on disinformation and rising hate against minorities in India, was arrested by the Delhi police, days after he brought international attention to controversial remarks by a ruling party spokesperson against prophet Muhammad.
Mohammad Zubair, co-founder of the fact-checking website Alt News, was arrested on Monday following a complaint posted by a Twitter user over a satirical tweet over four years ago, allegedly mocking the Hindu god Lord Hanuman.
Mr Zubair, who routinely calls out hate speech by Hindu fringe groups on the internet, has been charged with two sections of the Indian penal code for promoting enmity between different groups and outraging religious feelings.
The Delhi Police said the reason behind his arrest was a “questionable image” that he posted “with a purpose to deliberately insult the god of a particular religion.”
The arrest comes just a few days after India faced widespread condemnation from Islamic nations and the US for a remark made against prophet Muhammad by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) former spokesperson Nupur Sharma during a television debate.
The video was first flagged by Mr Zubair and received millions of views before sparking an international controversy. It led to the BJP issuing an apology and distancing itself from Ms Sharma.
Also read: Alt News: The small fact-checking unit that made India’s Prophet Muhammad row go global
This also comes just two days after the Gujarat police arrested activist Teesta Setalvad, who had been seeking accountability from Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his alleged role in the deadly anti-Muslim riots of Gujarat in 2002.
Pratik Sinha, the other co-founder of Alt News, said that Mr Zubair was arrested without any notice from police, which is mandatory under law for the sections under which he has been detained.
Journalists and activists critical of the government have increasingly come under attack in recent years and India’s press freedom rankings have plummeted to the lowest ever this year at 150.
Just a day after Mr Zubair’s arrest, Mr Modi along with G7 and partner countries, issued a joint statement pleading their support to free speech as a wave of outrage hit his home country.
The arrest of Mr Zubair, whose documentation of hate speeches — such as calls for genocide by saffron-clad monks last year — caused a national uproar, has left many stunned.
Prominent personalities, including journalists, politicians, and rights organizations have come out in support, with the hashtag #ISupportZubair trending on the top slots of international Twitter trends throughout Monday night.
“Journalist Zubair who routinely busted fake news, exposed the hate machinery in India has just been arrested,” wrote Rana Ayyub, a Muslim journalist who has also been a frequent target by the Hindu right wing. “The country is punishing those who reported, documented the decline,” she wrote on Twitter.
Amnesty India in a statement said the arrest of Mr Zubair “shows the dangers facing human rights defenders in India has reached crisis point”.
Former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, pointed out the irony of Mr Modi’s statements at the G7 summit.
“Arresting one voice of truth will only give rise to a thousand more,” wrote opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Twitter.
Internet users pointed out that the image posted by Mr Zubair was actually a screengrab taken from a scene of a popular Bollywood movie from 1983, which has aired on TV several times, presumably with appropriate clearance from the country’s censor board.
People also pointed out that the arrest took place merely eight days after an anonymous Twitter handle raised a complaint against the four-year-old tweet, while there is no legal action initiated against Ms Sharma whose remarks caused widespread protests in India and outside.