Police in Delhi have arrested the Muslim co-founder of a fact-checking website for allegedly “hurting religious sentiment” of Hindus. Media rights activists called the action a new low for press freedom in India.

Journalist Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of Alt News, was arrested Monday after being accused of insulting Hindu beliefs in a tweet he posted in 2018. Zubair regularly highlights the marginalization of minority Muslims and identifies fake news in his tweets.

The tweet that led to Zubair’s arrest carried a photo of a hotel sign repainted from “Honeymoon Hotel” to “Hanuman Hotel.” Monkey god Hanuman is revered by Hindus.

Along with the photo, which was a screenshot from a 1983 Bollywood comedy, the text in the tweet said, “Before 2014: Honeymoon Hotel. After 2014: Hanuman Hotel.”

On June 19, a Twitter account called Hanuman Bhakt, (follower of Hanuman, in Hindi), shared the 2018 tweet and charged that linking the monkey god to honeymoon was a “direct insult” to Hindus, and urged Delhi police to “take action” against Zubair.

Delhi police said Zubair’s tweet was “highly provocative and more than sufficient to incite feelings of hatred.”

“Transmission and publication of such posts have been deliberately done by Mohammed Zubair @zoo_bear through electronic media to insult the religious feelings of a particular community with the intent to provoke breach of peace,” the First Information Report filed by police said.

Vrinda Grover, Zubair’s lawyer, said Zubair is being targeted because he is a journalist and speaking “truth to power.”

“Many others tweeted the same, but the only difference between those handles and my client is his faith, his name and his profession,” Grover said to the court, referring to Zubair being Muslim and a journalist.

Refused bail

Zubair was refused bail Tuesday before being remanded to four days of police custody.

Apart from being a critic of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, Zubair has been known for routinely tracking and highlighting anti-Muslim hate speeches, mostly by Hindu right-wing activists.

Recently, he highlighted allegedly derogatory comments made by Nupur Sharma, a spokesperson for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), about the Prophet Muhammad. His tweet on the issue was widely shared and sparked strong protests against India from many Muslim countries.

Tens of thousands of Hindu nationalists came out in support of Sharma. They held rallies across the country and launched a #ArrestZubair campaign on Twitter. On social media, many of them said that Zubair often posted tweets insulting Hindu gods and goddesses and he should be prosecuted.

#ReleaseZubair trending on Twitter

Following Zubair’s arrest Monday, #IStandWithZubair and #ReleaseZubair began trending on Twitter in India, with journalists, opposition party leaders and rights activists expressing solidarity with him.

Opposition party leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted, “Every person exposing BJP’s hate, bigotry and lies is a threat to them.”

Delhi-based Muslim community leader Zafarul-Islam Khan said Zubair is being targeted because he consistently exposed the lies spread by the Hindutva [right-wing Hindu] groups.

“Under this regime, anyone who opens his mouth and raises his head must be put down. The plan is to silence all critics so that peace of graveyards sways over India,” Khan told VOA.

“Another low for press freedom in India”

Demanding Zubair’s immediate release, Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement: “The arrest of journalist Mohammad Zubair marks another low for press freedom in India, where the government has created a hostile and unsafe environment for members of the press reporting on sectarian issues.”

Calling Zubair’s arrest “clearly a petty, vindictive, and vengeful act,” social activist Rohit Chopra, an associate professor at Santa Clara University, told VOA that through his work, Zubair has shown how the “current government, its officials and supporters routinely spread fake news to demonize minorities, critics and their political opponents.”

Ashok Swain, head of the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, said the charges against Zubair are “fictitious,” and the severity of action against him is more because he is Muslim.

“When the critic is from a minority community, the government’s action becomes much more severe, as it not only prohibits others from raising their voices but also makes the core majoritarian supporters of the ruling party happy,” Swain told VOA.

Audrey Truschke, associate professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University, said Zubair’s arrest is a startling move by an authoritarian state whose intolerance grows by the day.

“These are indeed dark times for India, which is already one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. India’s government shames itself, tarnishes its reputation, and harms its own citizens by continuing down this horrific path,” Truschke told VOA.

India fell eight places in the 180-country World Press Freedom Index this year. In 2021, it ranked 142. In 2022, it ranks 150th.

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