India’s top court orders bail for chief fact-checker

NEW DELHI: India’s Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the release on bail of a detained journalist who was one of the first to highlight controversial remarks about Islam by an official of the country’s ruling party.

Mohammed Zubair, one of the co-founders of fact-checking website Alt News, drew attention to controversial comments by Nupur Sharma, the now-suspended spokesman for the Bharatiya Janata Party, about the Prophet Muhammad, which sparked a diplomatic spat last month. for the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

He was arrested by New Delhi police on June 27 for posting photos on social media “against a particular religious community”. The arrest follows a complaint from a Twitter user about Zubair’s post from 2018, in which he commented on the renaming of a hotel after a Hindu deity.

Days later, police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh accused Zubair of using an ‘offensive term – hatemongers’ to describe three Hindu religious leaders who were seen in videos inciting violence against Muslims. Although a Delhi court granted him bail in the original case, in which he was arrested, the journalist remained in custody on the other charges brought by Uttar Pradesh police.

The Supreme Court said it had found no “justification for keeping him in detention and subjecting him to an endless series of proceedings in various courts”.

“Having found that he has been the subject of a fairly vigorous investigation by the Delhi Police, we see no reason to further impede his freedom,” the court order reads.

In response to a request from the Uttar Pradesh administration to bar Zubair from “posting tweets”, the court ruled that he “will not pass such an order”.

“How can you tell a journalist he can’t write?” Judge DY Chandrachud said in the decision. “If he does something that breaks the law, he is responsible before the law. But how to act in anticipation against a citizen when he raises his voice? Every citizen is responsible for what he does in public or in private .

Zubair’s arrest sparked outrage from Indian journalists, civil rights activists and the international community. The German government has asked India to give “the necessary space” to “democratic values ​​such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press”.

But while the court ordered the journalist’s release, his detention “will have a chilling effect on others in the media”, Sanjay Kapoor, secretary general of the Editors Guild of India, told Arab News.

“It is a travesty of our times that relief for seemingly innocuous issues that are perceived by an ecosystem as an act of opposition to government is only available at (the) Supreme Court level.”

Journalists in India have been increasingly targeted for their work in recent years. Some have been arrested on heavy criminal charges for social media posts. The Twitter accounts of some of them have also been suspended by order of the government.

The country’s position in the World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, has steadily declined since Modi’s party took power in 2014.

In 2022, it has fallen to 150 out of 180 countries.

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