"They cannot file a complaint against me for writing a story because we have facts with us in our stories," Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of fact-check website Alt News, said in an interview in October 2021. "They cannot attack us on the story that we've written, so they are looking to attack me for any other unrelated tweet." A Twitter sensation with over half-a-million followers, Mr. Zubair was both loved and loathed on the social networks. While many applaud the efforts by Alt News, the website he co-founded with Pratik Sinha, to debunk disinformation and misinformation campaigns, his critics, mainly those in the right-wing online ecosystem, have repeatedly targeted him.
On June 27, the 39-year-old journalist was arrested by the Delhi Police , based on a complaint from an anonymous Twitter handle that alleged that Mr. Zubair hurt religious sentiments over a tweet he sent out four years ago and that he should be prosecuted for the same. The tweet was of an image from a 40-year-old film. The FIR lodged by the Delhi Police, which works under the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), initially invoked Sections 153-A (promoting enmity between different groups) and 295-A (malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings) of the Indian Penal Code. Subsequently, on July 2, additional charges, including criminal conspiracy and destruction of evidence, along with Section 35 of the FCRA, or the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, were applied.
Rise to prominence
A computer engineer-turned-journalist, Mr. Zubair, who had earlier worked with Nokia, joined hands with Mr. Sinha, also a former software engineer, to launch Alt News in 2017.
Within no time, the website rose to prominence for its diligent work, at a time when fake news was being spread on digital platforms like wildfire. They have compiled a list of more than 40 fake news sources on various social media platforms, and repeatedly called out disinformation campaigns and fake reports. Recently, Mr. Sinha and Mr. Zubair were named by the Peace Research Institute of Oslo in its yearly shortlist for the Nobel Peace Prize.
This is not the first time Mr. Zubair is facing legal cases . In 2020, two FIRs were lodged against him — one in New Delhi and the other in Chhattisgarh — under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act for alleged "online harassment and torture" of a minor girl.
In June 2022, before his arrest by the Delhi Police, he was named in an FIR lodged in Uttar Pradesh for allegedly hurting religious sentiments by calling Hindu religious figures Mahant Bajrang Muni, Yati Narsinghanand and Swami Anand Swarup "hatemongers" on Twitter after their inflammatory speeches, openly calling for violence against Muslims.
Angry with his work, right-wing elements have often called him an "Islamist" and a "jihadist", while demanding legal action against him and Alt News. His arrest came after he highlighted the controversial comments made by Nupur Sharma , now suspended from the BJP, that caused international embarrassment to the government.
After the Nupur Sharma controversy, Mr. Zubair had told media that the threats against him and his family had increased and this time the threats looked "serious and real". Hashtags such as #ArrestZubair" started trending on Twitter. A day after his arrest, Mr. Zubair gave a statement, saying he was being targeted for his "name and his profession". His lawyer Vrinda Grover, while arguing for his bail, submitted that "many had tweeted the same; the only difference between those handles and mine is my faith, my name and my profession".
The arrest has triggered sharp responses from both within and outside the country. Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, said, while responding to Mr. Zubair's arrest, "it is very important that people be allowed to express themselves freely, journalists be allowed to express themselves freely and without the threat of any harassment."
Mr. Zubair is still in jail. But Mr. Sinha says the arrest would not have any impact on the journalism Alt News does. "We at @AltNews will continue to fight misinformation, disinformation and hate speech, and keep holding people and organisations accountable, and nothing can stop that," he tweeted on June 28.
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