India’s War on Free Press Is in High Gear

MUMBAI (India)Mohammed Zubair was arrested for tweeting an innocent meme four years back. More than 100 police officers surrounded him when he appeared before a magistrate.

“It was a message, making an example of me, that they could treat you as a criminal,” he tells TIME.

Independent journalism is being made a de facto crime in what is supposed to be the world’s biggest democracy, with Zubair the latest offender. Zubair, a 40-year old co-founder and editor at fact-checking site. Alt News was arrested on June 27, summoned to New Delhi from Bangalore, handed a police report on a supposed complaint by an anonymous Twitter account that Zubair had “hurt Hindu sentiments”, and told within minutes that he was being arrested for not cooperating with the investigation.

In the next state, Uttar Pradesh, there were more complaints within days. One of them was about Zubair’s entirely accurate assertion that an imageA Hindu-rights news channel rabidly used the footage, but it was altered.

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“By arresting me and filing multiple cases against me – three of them for an accurate fact-check – they wanted to show that they can target anybody,” Zubair says. “If you’re a Muslim journalist or a Muslim activist, or for that matter any independent journalist, you could be in trouble.”

Zubair’s three-week incarceration, before he was released following a bail order by the Supreme Court, comes amid increasing restrictions on civil liberties and media censorship by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, especially against Muslims. A strongly worded order from the country’s top court may have secured Zubair’s freedom for now, but not since the 1975 Emergency — a 21-month suspension of democratic processes and fundamental rights — have Indian journalists felt this threatened, as the regime punishes critical voices.

Trust in journalism in India is at a nadir as the mainstream media mostly toes the Modi government’s line. Few digital-only news media outlets have crossed the line. With the help of a group of digital platforms, Alt NewsThese newly formed news agencies have produced high-quality journalism that is far beyond their modest means, and I was a founding member.

On June 10, 2022 in Dhaka (India), activists and supporters of Bangladeshi Islamist parties shout anti India slogans to demonstrate against the incendiary remarks made about Prophet Muhammad by an ex-indian ruling party representative.

Ahmed Salahuddin/NurPhoto/Getty Images

With Zubair, India’s most influential fact-checker at the helm, Alt NewsHe has a proven track record of calling out hateful and misleading campaigns by Hindu supremacists. His inputs forced police to move against the people behind an app that “auctioned” Muslim women journalists and activists. Zubair also successfully highlighted shocking videos of Hindu priests calling for war against Indian Muslims, and it was his tweet of the clip of a spokeswoman of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), mouthing obscenities against Prophet Muhammad at a TV show, that triggered a diplomatic row, with 20 Islamic nations condemning the comments.

Such work has infuriated the well-funded social media network of Hindu-right trolls and pro-BJP news outlets that broadcast and amplify Hindu supremacism to 700 million Indian mobile phone users, who happen to enjoy the world’s lowest data costs.

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With the “Arrest Zubair” hashtag trending for weeks following the controversy and violence over the comments on the Prophet, the former software engineer installed closed circuit cameras outside his home, fearing attacks by angry mobs. He was worried that the threats against his family and him might be more than just online. This is the fifth time he has been a fact-checker in five years. The fear of vigilante violence came on top of a sharp rise in the number of police cases against Zubair’s peers.

Following violence at a farmers’ protest venue in Delhi last year, police arrested and manhandled a freelance reporter at the site. A journalist from an independent news site was released days later. The WireThe editor and the reporter were arrested for reporting on the allegations levelled against the police and government by the family members of the farmer who was killed that day.

Alt News’ home page screen shot.

Manish Swarup/AP

Media persecution pattern

Media organizations critical of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis have faced raids by tax officials and law enforcement agencies. Last year, a video on YouTube demanding the “hanging” of journalists, including Zubair, clocked half a million views before it was taken down. It claimed that independent news websites were an “anti-India conspiracy.”

Freedom of Speech Collective found that more than 150 Indian journalists were arrested for or subject to government hostility between 2010-2020. This includes over 40% in 2020. According to editors at these news outlets, the brazen police actions to put Zubair in jail for more than three weeks in frivolous criminal cases is now a sign of an increased threat to independent journalists.

Police gathered information on Zubair while he was being held in police custody Alt NewsIt accepted donations from donors and paid that Alt NewsReceived funds, specifically from Pakistan. Indian law requires non-profit groups to seek the government’s permission for accepting donations from abroad.

“They wanted to show they can scare people who are donating, which is how they can stop us,” said Zubair.

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Fully crowd-funded Alt News doesn’t accept foreign funds or donations, so foreign donors are anyway disabled on their payment gateway. But since organizations like it for most part depend on contributions from readers to sustain themselves, the intimidation was aimed at hurting the bottom lines of outlier media outlets offering a narrative that clashes with the one Modi’s government wants to be broadcast.

It seems that the strategy is working. Zubair’s ordeal at the hands of police only deepens the climate of fear in the media industry. Following Zubair’s arrest, Delhi-based downbeat editors talked about the chilling impact that attacks on media had on newsrooms.

“Fear is being instilled in journalists not to question the government,” said Press Club of India president Umakant Lakhera. That’s terrible news for what used to be, not too long ago, one of the freest media in Asia.

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