Condemning the arrest of Muhammad Zubair, co-founder of the fact-checking website Alt News, journalist bodies have demanded his immediate release.
The Editors Guild of India (EGI), in a statement, said: “In a bizarre turn of events, Zubair was called in for questioning by the Special Cell of the Delhi Police in a case from 2020 for which he already had a protection against arrest from the Delhi High Court. However, when Zubair responded to the summons, he was arrested in relation to a criminal investigation initiated earlier in the month, after an anonymous twitter handle alleged that Zubair’s 2018 post was hurting religious sentiments.”
Terming the arrest extremely disturbing, the EGI said his website Alt News had done some exemplary work over the past few years in identifying fake news and countering disinformation campaigns in a very objective and factual manner. “In fact it was an exposure of toxic remarks of a ruling party spokesperson on a TV channel that allowed the party to make amends,” it said.
The Guild said it was apparent that Alt News’ alert vigilance was resented by those who used disinformation as a tool to polarise society and rake nationalist sentiments. It demanded that he be released as it was “necessary to buttress the comments made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the G7 meet in Germany to ensure a resilient democracy by protecting online and offline content”.
The Press Club of India (PCI) management said: “It is ironic that Muhammad Zubair’s arrest by the Delhi Police came on a day when India joined G7 and four other countries to protect free speech ‘online and offline’. Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the G7 meet in Germany where the signatories also committed to ‘protect freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief and promoting inter-faith dialogue’,” it said.
India signed the “2022 Resilient Democracies Statement” on Monday at the G7 summit in Germany, which reiterated the commitment to guarding the freedom, independence and diversity of civil society actors, and protecting the freedom of expression and opinion online and offline, it said.
“Are the Union Home Ministry and Delhi Police not on the same page with the Prime Minister on the commitment to freedom of expression? The action by the Delhi Police in hastily arresting Muhammad Zubair showed the blatant violation of the country’s commitment on the global platform given by none other than the Prime Minister himself,” the PCI statement said.
The PCI said Alt News was acting as an instrument to detect the disinformation spread through fake news that aimed to create fissures in the society. “Constant vigilance is the price which we pay for being a vibrant, diverse and largest democracy in the world and AltNews was fulfilling that role,” it said, adding that the arrest of activist Teesta Setalvad also smacked of vendetta.