NEW DELHI: The arrest of a Muslim reporter who was one of the first to highlight controversial comments on Islam by an official from India’s ruling party, sparked nationwide outrage among media workers on Tuesday, with journalists calling for his immediate release.
One of the co-founders of fact-checking website Alt News, Mohammed Zubair drew attention to controversial comments made by the now-suspended spokesperson of India’s ruling party on the Prophet Muhammad that earlier this month created a diplomatic row for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration.
He was arrested by New Delhi police on Monday evening on charges of posting pictures on social media “against a particular religious community.” The arrest followed a complaint by a Twitter user over Zubair’s post from 2018, in which he commented on the renaming of a hotel after the Hindu monkey deity Hanuman. The arrest coincided with Modi signing, with leaders of the G7 in Germany, the 2022 Resilient Democracies Statement on protecting freedom of expression and opinion.
“(The) foundation of democracy is in danger today. We are concerned about the state of freedom of (the) press in India. Any attack on the press is an attack on democracy,” Umakant Lakhera, president of the Press Club of India, told Arab News, after the top association of Indian journalists demanded Zubair’s immediate release.
“Democracy cannot survive without the freedom of (the) press,” Lakhera said. The Editors Guild of India also issued a statement condemning the arrest.
“I don’t know whether this arrest should be seen as an attempt to control dissenting voices. The people who run the government have a different view of news — they want stenographers who unquestioningly write what’s told to them,” the guild’s secretary general, Sanjay Kapoor, said.
“Fact checking hurts the ecosystem that uses disinformation to undermine the credibility of the media and those who disagree with the state.”
Journalists in India have been increasingly targeted for their work in recent years. Some have been arrested under stringent criminal charges over posts on social media. The Twitter accounts of some of them have also been suspended on government orders.
The country’s position on the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders has been consistently declining since Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party took power in 2014.
In 2022, it has fallen to 150 out of 180 countries.
Indian journalist, television anchor, and senior political commentator Urmilesh told Arab News that Zubair’s arrest is a “continuation of the government’s assault on media that has been going on for the last eight years.”
“This was not the trend earlier in India,” he said. “It has become quite risky in India to be critical. You are not safe if you are the critic of the government. You can be arrested any time. True journalists who practice their journalism honestly, are under threat in India today.”