NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s top court Wednesday granted bail to a Muslim journalist and ordered his release from jail, more than three weeks after he was detained for allegedly hurting religious sentiments through his tweets.
Mohammed Zubair, a co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News, was arrested last month by Delhi police over a 2018 tweet on charges of insulting Hindu religious beliefs.
Police in Uttar Pradesh state later charged him in a separate case for using the term "hatemongers” for three Hindu monks who made inflammatory comments about Muslims, with at least one calling for “genocide” of the minority community.
The Uttar Pradesh police also charged him with criminal conspiracy, destroying evidence and receiving foreign funds in at least half a dozen other cases.
Zubair’s arrest came after he highlighted comments made by the now-suspended spokesperson of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party about Islam's Prophet Muhammad in June that created a diplomatic row for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration. Activists, journalists and opposition politicians decried Zubair's arrest as the latest example of shrinking media freedom under Modi’s government.
In its decision, the court ordered Zubair’s immediate release from New Delhi's Tihar jail and asked authorities to combine all cases against him into one.
"In (the) present case (there is) no justification to keep him in continued detention and subject him to an endless round of proceedings in various courts,” the Supreme Court said. It also chided the Uttar Pradesh government for asking the court to stop the journalist from tweeting.
“How can you tell a journalist he cannot write,” Justice Dhananjaya Yeshwant Chandrachud said.
Journalists and government critics suspect Zubair is facing retribution for exposing hate speech against Muslims who have been facing attacks by Hindu nationalists.
Founded in 2017 as a nonprofit organization, Alt News is India’s most prominent fact-checking news website and has gained a reputation for its reporting on hate speech and debunking misinformation, particularly by Hindu nationalists. Its founders, including Zubair, have in the past faced online trolling and threats by right-wing groups, some of them linked to the Hindu nationalist BJP.
Journalists across India have been targeted increasingly for their work in recent years. Some have been arrested on criminal charges over posts on social media, where they routinely face threats and trolling. Some journalists' Twitter accounts and news websites have also been suspended on government orders.
India’s ranking fell eight places to 150 among 180 countries in this year’s Press Freedom Index published by the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders.