Over 100 concerned citizens have demanded immediate release of Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of AltNews, welcoming the Delhi High Court’s notice to the Delhi Police seeking a response on a petition challenging the legality and propriety of his four-day police remand and the seizure of his digital devices.
Through an open letter, they said as a part of AltNews that ran a fact-checking website, it was Mr. Zubair’s job to verify news from across the political spectrum on social media. “We believe that Mr. Zubair is being targeted maliciously for performing the role which a media person is expected to perform, namely scrupulous fact checking as well as exposing fake news and political disinformation.”
Among those who have endorsed the statement are writer and human rights activist Aakar Patel, independent journalist Ajit Sahi, Arjun Sheoran of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, Natasha Bhadwar of Karwan-e-Mohabbat and Dalit women’s activist Priyanka.
They said his courageous work as a journalist upheld the highest standards of the media and his work burnished India’s global image as a democracy in which truth could be told to power.
They said Mr. Zubair’s tweet, of a screenshot of a 1983 film, was simply a pretext for the police to seize his phone and laptop, which was illegal as they were irrelevant to the case. “Apart from violating his fundamental right to privacy, his journalistic integrity and confidentiality of information and sources, we apprehend that the police may tamper with the seized material and build a false conspiracy to implicate him and other members of civil society, as was done with some of the Bhima Koregaon accused by planting material on their laptops,” they said.
“It is also suspicious that the account from which the complaint came was an anonymous Twitter handle @balajikijaiin by the name of Hanuman Bhakt. The account came into being on October 2021, had only one follower, and this complaint was his first tweet, although in court during Mr. Zubair’s remand hearing on Tuesday, the police had submitted that the person running the Twitter account was ‘not anonymous’,” said the statement.
However, the signatories said, according to news reports the Delhi Police had written to Twitter in a bid to trace the complainant after using his tweet as material for a First Information Report (FIR) against Mr. Zubair.
“Apart from the above illegalities, after Mr. Zubair’s arrest, his lawyers were not given a copy of the FIR despite repeated requests. They were given a copy only after the police remand order late into the night of June 27. Mr. Zubair was taken around with policemen without name tags; these are all violations of the D.K. Basu guidelines of Arrest and Detention issued by the Supreme Court of India,” they said.
“Perplexed” that remand was granted to the police for a “frivolous” case, the signatories said the Judicial Magistrate should have ensured that police officers did not arrest the accused unnecessarily.
The signatories said all the charges against Mr. Zubair should be dropped and the Delhi Police Commissioner should take stern action against errant officials. They raised the suspicion that he might be tortured in police custody.
“It is ironical that on the same day as Mr. Zubair’s arrest, India, along with G7 countries, signed the ‘2022 Resilient Democracies Statement’, wherein the Indian government committed to ‘guarding the freedom, independence and diversity of civil society actors’ and ‘protecting the freedom of expression and opinion online and offline’,” said the statement.