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'Highly abnormal': AltNews journo's arrest suggests 'deterioration in media freedom'

By Bharat Dogra* 

Leading media organizations have come out in strong support of recently arrested journalist Mohammed Zubair. These organizations include, among others, the Editors Guild of India, the Press Club of India, the Delhi Union of Journalists and DIGIPUB, a platform for several important digital media organizations. All these organizations have condemned the recent arrest of the noted journalist and demanded his immediate release.
While leading human rights organizations and political parties have also made somewhat similar statements, the strong support of media organizations is particularly important as the effort of the authorities has been to try to present the arrested journalist as someone who has been indulging in irresponsible journalism. 
In such a situation the support of those media organizations who are familiar with his work and who are most capable of judging the quality of his work is very important. In this context it is important that some media organizations have specifically stated that his work and that of AltNews, the media organization Zubair represents, is important and known for high professional standards.
Mohammed Zubair is co-founder of a popular fact-finding website AltNews. As media organizations have pointed out, the ostensible reason for arrest appears to be a complaint regarding a tweet that goes back to four years in 2018. It is highly abnormal for a senior journalist to be arrested for a tweet made such a long time back and this is why this is being widely seen as an act of vendetta.
The Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) has stated in a statement released on June 29 that AltNews is considered the gold standard in fact checking. Such a statement would never have been made by a prominent organization of journalists without really credible work having been done by this website. This statement has also stated that on twitter the arrested journalist has 572,000 followers and his popularity appears to have made him a target.
The DUJ statement has also quoted AltNews co-founder Prateek Sinha as saying that despite repeated requests by Mohammed Jubair a copy of the FIR was not provided to him at the time of arrest.
The DUJ has demanded the release of both Mohammed Zubair and Teesta Setalvad, a prominent journalist as well as human rights activist, who too was arrested very recently. This statement has noted the contradiction, observed also by other media organizations, between such arrests and the statements endorsed internationally by the Government of India regarding freedom of media and civil society organizations. 
Before 2014, India was widely regarded to be among those developing countries where the media worked in very free conditions
In fact, very recently at the G7 summit and meeting of several countries in Germany the Indian government committed itself to the 2022 Resilient Democracies Statement which involves a pledge to guard the freedom, independence and diversity of civil society actors and protect the freedom of expression online and offline. How does such a pledge square up with the arrest of a courageous and highly regarded journalist in a highly arbitrary manner for a complaint relating to a 4 year old tweet?
In an earlier statement the Editors Guild of India had stated that this arrest is “extremely disturbing”. This statement also noted that AltNews and Mohammed Zubair have done “some exemplary work over the past few years in identifying fake news and countering disinformation campaigns in a very objective and factual manner.”
The Press Club of India and DIGIPUB have also condemned the arrest and asked for the release of the arrested journalist.
These statements have come on top of the strong opposition to this arrest by human rights organizations like the Amnesty International as well as leading opposition political parties including the Congress, the CPM and CPI.
These statements of leading media organizations should be seen together with the several other statements released by them earlier regarding the injustice and severe distress which several other journalists, columnists and media organizations have suffered due to the repressive attitude of the Indian government in recent times. 
Till just a few years back, before 2014, India was widely regarded to be among those developing countries where the media worked in very free conditions and although there were constraints imposed by such factors as the ownership and advertisement patterns, the condition was widely regarded to be satisfactory in terms of absence of any serious constraints imposed from the side of the union government. 
This deterioration in media freedom in India is a very distressing and significant aspect of the deterioration of democratic norms and must be firmly resisted.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now; recent books include ‘A Day in 2071’, ‘Man over Machine', ‘Protecting Earth for Children' and ‘Navjeevan’

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