India’s highest court grants bail to prominent fact-checking journalist

India’s Supreme Court has ordered the release of a prominent Muslim journalist and fact-checker arrested last month over a 4-year-old tweet that police say “hurt the religious sentiment” of Hindus.

Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of the fact-checking site New Alternatives and critic of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, regularly tracks and highlights anti-Muslim hate speech by right-wing Hindu activists, mostly in his tweets.

Weeks before his arrest, Zubair pointed to what some interpreted as derogatory comments by Nupur Sharma, spokesperson for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), about the Prophet Muhammad.

On Wednesday, the high court ordered that Zubair be immediately released from prison, noting that there was no justification for keeping him in detention and that “the power of arrest should be exercised sparingly”.

Two hours later, Zubair was released from Tihar prison in New Delhi.

Delhi police officially arrested Zubair on June 27 for his 2018 tweet. But many believe the BJP-led government targeted him because of his tweet in May on Sharma’s comments, a message that had been widely shared and sparked strong protests against India in many Muslim countries.

After Zubair’s arrest last month, police in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh filed seven new charges against him, including for “inciting a riot” and calling some Hindu religious leaders who practiced the anti-Muslim speech of “hate smokers”, among others.

A Delhi court on Friday granted Zubair bail in the 2018 original tweet case. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court granted him bail in the Uttar Pradesh cases.

The court ordered the Uttar Pradesh Police to consolidate all police cases against Zubair and hand them over to Delhi Police. As Zubair was released on bail, the court ordered the Delhi police to continue investigating the cases.

While granting bail, the court denied the Uttar Pradesh government’s request to stop Zubair from tweeting.

“You cannot ask a journalist not to write. … We can’t stop him from tweeting. We cannot prevent him from exercising his right to freedom of expression in advance,” the court said.

Zubair’s arrest has reignited concerns about deteriorating journalistic freedoms in the world’s largest democracy. Shortly after his arrest, the hashtags #IStandWithZubair and #ReleaseZubair started popping up on Twitter in India.

Global media rights groups, such as Journalists Protection Committee and Reporters Without Borders and human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, condemned his arrest and demanded his immediate release.

Those who expressed solidarity with Zubair after his arrest welcomed his release on bail on Wednesday.

“The Press Club of India welcomes the granting of bail to AltNews co-founder Muhammed Zubair by the Supreme Court today in all cases filed against him, restoring his personal freedom,” tweeted the organization.

Trinamool Congressman Opposition Member of Parliament Mahua Moitra tweeted: “Stand up straight @zoo_bear [Mohammad Zubair] & continue to lead by example. The truth always prevails.

Zubair’s bail is an encouraging first step that “underscores the importance of India’s justice system as a safeguard against abuses of state power,” said Rohit Chopra, associate professor at the University of Santa Clara, in the US state of California.

“It is hoped that the next step will be to dismiss the charges against Zubair, all of which are patently absurd. These cases are clearly designed as a tool of harassment and to provide a chilling effect so that other critics of the government refrain from speaking out,” Chopra told VOA via email.

“Unless India’s judiciary stands firm in defending constitutional rights and freedom of speech, there is absolutely nothing to prevent the same from happening to anyone who incurs the wrath of the Hindu right or the government. BJP.”

Virginia C. Taylor