Mohammed Zubair, one of the founders of fact-checking website Alt News, was arrested by the Delhi Police on Monday over a four-year-old tweet, days after he flagged a video of since-suspended BJP leader Nupur Sharma's provocative remarks against Prophet Mohammed on a TV show.
Mr Zubair has been charged with hurting religious sentiments and promoting enmity. He has been sent to police custody for a day.
On Monday, he was originally called for questioning in a 2020 case, in which the court had already granted him protection against arrest. But he was arrested in this case, based on a complaint by a police officer. The officer, according to his complaint, noticed a post by the Twitter handle '@balajikijaiin' earlier this month objecting to Mr Zubair's tweet from March 2018 that carried a "questionable" image to "deliberately insult the god of a particular religion". The image is actually a frame from a 1983 movie.
Alt News co-founder Pratik Sinha alleged that Mr Zubair was arrested without mandatory notice. "No FIR copy is being given to us despite repeated requests."
Please note. pic.twitter.com/gMmassggbx— Pratik Sinha (@free_thinker) June 27, 2022
Police acknowledged that Mr Zubair was being questioned in an older case but was arrested in the new case "after having sufficient evidence on record".
The older case was filed for alleged harassment of a girl on Twitter two years ago. Mr Zubair had called out a man's abusive online behaviour by re-posting his profile photo with his grand-daughter, but had blurred her face. The police have already told the court that there is no offence made out against Mr Zubair for that tweet.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted against the arrest and criticised the BJP government. "Arresting one voice of truth will only give rise to a thousand more," he said.
Every person exposing BJP's hate, bigotry and lies is a threat to them.— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) June 27, 2022
Arresting one voice of truth will only give rise to a thousand more.
Truth ALWAYS triumphs over tyranny. #DaroMatpic.twitter.com/hIUuxfvq6s
Saying that Alt News provides a "vital service", Congress MP Shashi Tharoor termed Mr Zubair's arrest an "assault on truth", and demanded his release.
India's few fact-checking services, especially @AltNews, perform a vital service in our post-truth political environment, rife with disinformation. They debunk falsehoods whoever perpetrates them. To arrest @zoo_bear is an assault on truth. He should be released immediately.— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) June 27, 2022
Another Congress MP, Jairam Ramesh, alleged that the Delhi police acted in a vengeful manner as AltNews exposes the government's bogus claims.
Altnews & @zoo_bear have been in the forefront of exposing the bogus claims of the Vishguru, who has struck back with a vengeance characteristic of him. Delhi Police, reporting to the Union Home Minister, has long lost any pretensions of professionalism and independence. https://t.co/OPi1MMth5g— Jairam Ramesh (@Jairam_Ramesh) June 27, 2022
Lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan, too, reacted angrily. "This government is going after those who are exposing hate speech," he told NDTV.
Founded in 2017 as a non-profit, Alt News is among the world's most prominent fact-checking outlets. Its founders have been facing online trolling and police cases, particularly by right-wing groups, for years.