Delhi police have arrested a prominent Muslim journalist, accusing him of insulting religious beliefs on social media, in a move condemned by free speech advocates.
Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News, which debunks misinformation in the Indian media, was arrested on Monday and spent the night in police custody, said KPS Malhotra, Deputy Commissioner of the Delhi Cyber Crime Unit. .
Malhotra said that Zubair was arrested under two sections of the Indian Penal Code related to the maintenance of religious harmony.
Zubair often tweets criticism of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for what he and other critics say is a crackdown on the rights of the country’s estimated 200 million Muslims.
His arrest comes in the middle repeated accusations by critics that the BJP is using colonial-era laws to nullify any form of criticism and encourage self-censorship.
Zubair’s lawyer, Kawalpreet Kaur, said the journalist had been summoned for questioning in connection with a 2020 criminal investigation into his social media posts, of which the Delhi High Court had previously granted him protection from arrest. . But when he responded to the summons, police arrested him on another case, he said.
Kaur showed CNN a police complaint in which a Twitter user accused Zubair of insulting Hindus on the platform in 2018, in a post about renaming a hotel after a Hindu god.
He accused the authorities of not following proper procedure and of not notifying Zubair.
Malhotra, the deputy commissioner, did not respond to questions from CNN about whether police had followed proper procedure during the arrest.
Earlier this month, Zubair had criticized the now-suspended BJP national spokesperson, Nupur Sharma, for making derogatory comments about Islam’s prophet Mohammed, comments that had sparked a diplomatic spat. At least 15 Muslim-majority nations have condemned Sharma’s comments, several of them summoning India’s ambassadors and describing the remarks as “Islamophobic.”
Among Zubair’s recent social media posts are videos he says show Hindu extremists giving hate speech against Islam, a minority religion in India where almost 80% of the people are Hindu.
Zubair’s arrest has outraged politicians, journalists and news organizations, who have demanded his release.
The Publishers Guild of India in a statement On Tuesday, he said it was “apparent that Alt News’ vigilant watchdog was resented by those who use disinformation as a tool to polarize society and bring nationalist sentiments to light.”
Shashi Tharoor, an MP from India’s opposition Congress party, said the arrest was an “assault on the truth”.
“India’s few fact-checking services, especially Alt News, perform a vital service in our disinformation-riddled post-truth political environment,” Tharoor wrote on Twitter on Monday. “They deny falsehoods, whoever perpetrates them. Stopping (Zubair) is an assault on the truth. He must be released immediately.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists on Monday asked the Indian authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release” Zubair and “stop harassing him in retaliation for his work.”