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INDIAN MANDALA Delhi, a journalist arrested for a tweet from four years earlier

Mohammad Zubair is a co-founder of fact-checking site AltNews born in 2017, but the history of independent initiatives critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi dates back to the Gujarat pogroms of 2002. Twitter is struggling to balance calls for blocking by the Indian government.

Delhi () – Journalists are not having a good time in Asia. Following the order by the Philippine authorities to shut down the Rappler news site, co-founded by Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist Maria Ressa, and the refusal of some news agencies to cover the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty , in India another journalist was arrested for “incitement to intra-community hatred”.

This is Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of the fact-checking site altnewswhich in recent years has dismantled various propaganda content from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu ultra-nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Delhi police arrested Zubair for a 2018 tweet, following a complaint filed by an anonymous account that no longer exists. Indeed, Zubair has been under pressure for years, as has the same Twitter platform that this week, at the request of the government, blocked a series of accounts for Indian users.

In 2018, Zubair posted on Twitter a photo of a hotel that appeared in a 1983 comedy, which was later renamed: “Before 2014: Honeymoon Hotel. After 2014: Hotel Hanuman”, the journalist had written, referring to the Hindu nationalists who came to power that year. Hanuman is a Hindu deity with monkey features that right-wing extremists often share on social media.

On June 19 this year, the anonymous account Hanuman Bakhat commented on the post, considering it offensive, and reported it to the Delhi police. As the site noted Scroll, Hanuman Bakht was created in October 2021, he didn’t follow anyone, he only had 3 followers and he had never tweeted before. After Zubair was arrested on June 20, the profile was removed.

Zubair was not immediately informed of the complaint filed against him, they stated. their lawyers: He was summoned to the police station to discuss a previous legal case and was arrested right there. The Delhi police claimed that the journalist had not cooperated to deliver the computer and cell phone.

Zubair’s tweets and AltNew articles had already attracted the attention of BJP loyalists. In recent months, for example, the Twitter account Hakw Eye had unleashed a campaign against Zubair spreading the hashtag “ArrestMohammadZubair”. A few days ago, Zubair’s tweets about Nupur Shurma, the BJP spokeswoman who was later relieved of her post for offensive comments against Islam and the Prophet Mohammed, caused the issue to acquire international significance.

For its part, Twitter complied with the Indian government’s request to black out a number of individual tweets. India claims the right to block Internet content that affects national sovereignty or security, but human rights advocates say the definition is too broad and is much more often used as a method of censorship against government opponents. Content removal requests that governments make to Twitter are published in a public database called Lumen: in the period from January to June 2021, 11% of the requests came from India. Although Twitter is not a big reality in India, it has a strong impact on the political narrative and many journalists believe that this is the reason for the government’s viciousness against the platform. In the first half of 2020, for example, Facebook’s compliance rate to orders from India was 50%, while Twitter’s was just 1%.

But government control is not limited to online platforms. In a country where the paper is still widely circulated, newspapers that in the past tried to run fact-checking or critical anti-government articles have had their advertising removed from big companies close to Modi.

Zubair did not start as a journalist, but as telecommunication engineer passionate about social networks. AltNews only started publishing its fact-checking articles in 2017, after meeting Pratik Sinha, a computer engineer who grew up in Gujarat.

Sinha witnessed the political evolution of Modi, prime minister of the Indian state from 2001 to 2014. The first disinformation campaigns began to circulate after the Gujarat pogroms in 2002, a time of violence that culminated in the repression of the Muslim population and the murder of more than 2 thousand people (although official figures speak of half). Sinha’s parents carried out very important activism at that time to denounce the mistakes of the government, which had turned a blind eye to the violence and human rights violations. But when published their revelations by 2013 it was already too late: Modi was on the rise and his closest aide, Amit Shah, arrested in 2010, served only three months in prison and in 2019 was appointed interior minister.

It is no coincidence that Zubair’s arrest took place approximately a week after that of the journalist and activist Teesta Setalvad after the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal holding Modi responsible for the 2002 violence. Setalvad was detained by anti-terror police for “falsifying and fabricating evidence” and despite claims from international organizationslike Zubair, remains in detention.



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Written by Editor TLN

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