India court orders release of journalist Mohammed Zubair on bail

The Alt News co-founder was arrested last month after an anonymous Twitter user lodged a complaint over a four-year-old tweet.

India’s Supreme Court has ordered the release on bail of a prominent journalist arrested last month over what police said was a “highly provocative” 2018 tweet aimed at straining ties between majority Hindus and minority Muslims.

Mohammed Zubair, a co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News and vocal critic of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was arrested after an anonymous Twitter user lodged a complaint over the four-year-old post.

While granting Zubair, 39, bail on Wednesday, the judges stated that “power of arrests must be pursued sparingly”.

The court also stated that while investigations can continue, there was no justification for keeping Zubair in custody.

Zubair’s lawyer had earlier said the case bordered on the absurd, because Zubair, a Muslim, had used satire from a Hindi movie in his 2018 tweet and there was no evidence that he had hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus.

Zubair and his colleagues accused the federal government of using the police to silence the voice of journalists and other critics.

“It’s a huge slap on the face of the Uttar Pradesh police which became an instrument for the political persecution of Mohammed Zubair with one bogus FIR [first information report] after the other, designed only to keep him in jail for as long as it was going to be possible,” Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire news website, told Al Jazeera.

“The Supreme Court has done the right thing but it should also force the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, particularly chief minister [Yogi] Adityanath to introspect about the kind of reputation that law enforcement now has in the state.”

Earlier this year, Zubair, who has more than half a million Twitter followers, had drawn attention to an incendiary remark about Prophet Muhammad made on TV by a spokeswoman for Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Bail in one case, custody in another, escorted to Sitapur, Lakhimpur, Hathras, Delhi, Bangalore, formation of SIT, vilification by media & RW which called him a terrorist –this is what journalist Md Zubair went through in last 23 days before being granted bail by Supreme Court. — Kaushik Raj (@kaushikrj6) July 20, 2022

Sanjay Kapoor, editor of Hardnews magazine and general secretary of the Editors Guild of India, was more skeptic.

“I am not sure whether the directions of the Supreme Court on bail would really make a difference if the government and the ruling party want to ensure that there is no repetition of what has been done to Zubair,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Inspite of being such a high profile case, Zubair had to stay for so long in jail for tweeting something so inane… They have managed to harass Zubair and it would have a chilling effect on others in the media.”

Zubair’s lawyer said the government was using the 2018 case to punish him after this year’s tweet went viral.

The BJP suspended the spokeswoman for her anti-Islam remarks and expelled another official to defuse domestic and international diplomatic outrage.

India is ranked 150th on the 180-country World Press Freedom Index, compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders.

Additional reporting by Bilal Kuchay from New Delhi, India