Mohammed Zubair, Indian journalist, arrested over Twitter posts

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NEW DELHI – Mohammed Zubair, a Muslim Indian journalist and prominent critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was arrested on Monday for posting on Twitter, with press freedom groups quickly condemning the allegations.

Zubair, co-founder of the fact-checking site Alt News, was charged with “deliberate and malicious acts intended to stir up religious feelings” over a post he shared in 2018 that referred to the Hindu god Hanuman. He was sentenced to four days in prison late Tuesday.

The arrest came weeks after Zubair, who has more than half a million Twitter followers, gained international prominence by drawing attention to controversial statements about the Prophet Muhammad from an official of the Modis Bharatiya Janata party. The derogatory comments about Muhammad’s marriage from BJP spokeswoman Nupur Sharma led to widespread condemnation from the Islamic world and apologies from the Indian government.

The timing of Zubair’s arrest – and the nature of the charges – has raised suspicions that he is facing retaliation at a time when the Modi government and its supporters are increasingly cracking down on critics active on social media. In recent years, Indian authorities have arrested opposition politicians for their tweets and pressured Twitter to remove posts by protesting farmers criticizing Modi.

In 2021, the government also asked Twitter to censor tweets from the pro-freedom group Freedom House, which has written negatively about the Indian government, the technology blog Entrackr and the news agency Press Trust of India reported this week, citing a new Twitter document.

Zubair so last week that he had received a message from Twitter that the Indian government had told the social media company that his account – in its entirety, rather than specific tweets – “violates the law (s) in India.”

A police investigation into Zubair’s account was prompted by a tweet earlier this month from an anonymous account calling out a post from Zubair in 2018 about the name of a hotel, according to local media. “Before 2014: Honeymoon Hotel”, it said in the tweet. “After 2014: Hanuman Hotel.”

The anonymous account – which used the name Hanuman Bhakt, an apparent reference to the Hindu god mentioned in Zubair’s post – asked Delhi police to “please take action against this guy”. The link of Hanuman, who is said to be celibate, to “honeymoon” was a “direct insult to Hindus,” the account said in a tweet last week.

Suman Nalwa, a spokeswoman for the Delhi police, confirmed in a telephone interview that the accusations were based on Zubair’s Twitter post. “He had posted some things on the Twitter handle that were derogatory to one community,” she said. “They were very provocative, and it is believed that he did so on purpose.”

Steven Butler, Asia Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, a non-profit organization that advocates for press freedoms around the world, said in a statement: “The arrest of journalist Mohammad Zubair marks a new low for press freedom in India. hostile and insecure environment for members of the press who report on sectarian issues. The authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Zubair, and allow him to continue his journalistic work without further interference. “

Digipub, a group of news sites in India, too condemned the arrest and said “it is unjustifiable that such strict laws are used as a tool against journalists”. The press club in India called Modi hypocritical for signing a seven-day same-day group that promises to protect “freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief” and promote “interfaith dialogue.”

Modi has been widely criticized for taking a Hindu nationalist approach to dealing with India’s religious tensions and for its treatment of the country’s Muslim minority. In 2002, when he was prime minister of the state of Gujarat, he was accused of inaction after joint violence resulted in the brutal killings of 1,000 to 2,000 Muslims.

Clashes have escalated across India in recent months, and tensions over Sharma’s statements about the prophet have had deadly consequences. On Tuesday, two men in the state of Rajasthan hacked to death a tailor who had expressed support for the BJP spokeswoman on social media. The killings, which were recorded by the two perpetrators, sparked mass protests in the western city of Udaipur, where police cut off Internet services to curb the unrest.

Zubair has previously used social media to expose hate speech against Muslims and was previously reprimanded by police for a tweet calling out right-wing Hindu activists, according to Digipub.

Pratik Sinha, who co-founded Alt News with Zubair, said his colleague was remanded in custody despite receiving previous protection from the Supreme Court, and that neither he nor Zubair were properly notified of the arrest “despite repeated requests”. .

Pietsch reported from Seoul. Amy Cheng contributed to this report.