The arrest of Muhammed Zubair, co-founder of Alt News, a fact-checking website, has been described as a new low for press freedom in India. Press and human rights groups see it as an attack on the freedom of expression.
Zubair was arrested last week following a complaint by a Twitter user over a satirical tweet posted more than four years ago in 2018, allegedly mocking the Hindu god Hanuman.
Free speech under threat
The tweet in question is a photo of the "Honeymoon Hotel" with its name changed to read "Hanuman Hotel." Another Twitter user recently retweeted it,calling it an afront to his religious sentiments.
Zubair, who has been in the forefront of calling out disinformation and rising hate speech against minorities in the country, was arrested days after bringing international attention to controversial remarks made by a ruling party official against Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
The comments made by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) former spokesperson Nupur Sharma during a television debate drew widespread condemnation from Islamic nations and the US.
"The arrest is extremely disturbing. Zubair was active in tackling disinformation in the last few years. That this made him a direct target of fake news generators," said Sanjay Kapoor, secretary-general of the Editors Guild of India.
Kapoor pointed out that there are signs suggesting this intolerance has grown in scale and intensity in the wake of the present right-wing government's rise to power with its strict definition of nationalism.
Indie pledges to protect freedom of expression
The arrest came as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was attending the G7 summit, where participating countries, including India, pledged to protect freedom of expression.
They signed the "2022 Resilient Democracies Statement," in which they committed to "guarding the freedom, independence and diversity of civil society actors" and "protecting the freedom of expression and opinion online and offline."
Vrinda Grover, Zubair's lawyer, said her client was being targeted because he is a journalist who speaks "truth to power."
"Many others tweeted the same image. Why was no action against them? The only difference between those handles and my client is his faith, his name and his profession," Grover told DW.
Other global press bodies, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Press Institute, a global network of editors, journalists and media executives defending press freedom, also condemned the arrest, calling for Zubair's release.
A shrinking space for dissent
Free-speech activists and media commentators affirm that the space for hard-hitting journalism, dissent and debate has rapidly shrunk in India's mainstream media.
In May, India's press freedom ranking fell eight places from 142 in 2021 to 150 this year, according to global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which published its 2022 World Press Freedom Index.
"The violence against journalists, the politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership all demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis in the world's largest democracy, ruled since 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the embodiment of the Hindu nationalist right," the report said.
The indicators used by RSF were based on a quantitative survey of press-freedom violations and abuses against journalists and media, along with questionnaire responses from hundreds of press-freedom experts.
Siddique Kappan, another Muslim journalist, has been in prison since October 2020, when Uttar Pradesh police arrested him on charges of terrorism, sedition and promoting enmity between groups, among others.
At the time of his arrest, Kappan had been on his way from New Delhi to the Hathras district in northern Uttar Pradesh to report on a gang rape and murder case of a young Dalit woman that had sparked nationwide protests.
New technologies and censorship
Journalists and online critics also risk prosecution under the Information Technology Act and IT Rules of 2021 after the government broadened the scope under which companies could be criminally liable for content critical of the authorities.
Some of these measures have come against the backdrop of growing tension between New Delhi and digital platforms like Twitter and Netflix over content regulation.
For instance, Twitter has in the past suspended hundreds of accounts in India at the request of the government, which was trying to contain the large-scale farmers' protests last year by clamping down on demonstrators' online activity.
In addition, Indian authorities were implicated in the use of the Israeli-produced spyware Pegasus to target journalists last year.
Several media owners who are close to the ruling party or who want their business interests furthered have started putting pressure on journalists to curb reporting, change editorial direction or just practice self-censorship.
"Press freedom is dismal because mainstream media proprietors do not take on the government on its press-freedom record, and are hugely dependent on government advertising," Sevanti Ninan, a media critic, told DW.
Violence against journalists
Another report released by the Right and Risk Analysis Group on press freedom in February said at least six journalists were killed and 121 journalists and media houses were targeted in India last year.
At least 34 faced attacks from non-state actors, mainly political party activists, mafia and online trolls. Eight female journalists faced arrest, summons, police complaints and sexual harassment, the report said.
"There has been a blackout of all uncomfortable news. What is disturbing about the data is that it points to media freedoms in India reaching a state of precipitous decline. Have we reached a point of no return? That is the question," Pamela Philipose, a media ombudsperson, said.
Edited by: Alex Berry