Mumbai: The day after journalist, fact-checker and co-founder of Alt News Mohammed Zubair was arrested, his lawyer Vrinda Grover told a Delhi magistrate’s court that the first information report (FIR) had been filed based on a complaint from an anonymous Twitter handle.
The informant’s “details are here”, the prosecutor countered.
Nevertheless, the following day, the government reportedly sent the microblogging site a notice seeking details, including IP log details (which provide analytics), registration information, connected email and device used by the informant-handle, a Twitter user with the name Hanuman Bhakt and handle @balajikijaiin.
The account appeared to be deactivated, before reappearing briefly. Weeks later, an investigation by The Wire found that the handle’s recovery email id belonged to a convenor of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s youth wing, and the handle was among a network of over 700 accounts that had for over two years tried to incriminate Zubair and his Alt News co-founder Pratik Sinha by portraying them as “Hinduphobic”.
Meanwhile, after his initial arrest on 27 June, six FIRs against Zubair emerged in Uttar Pradesh, most filed between 2021 and June 2022 but lying dormant, including three for an accurate fact-check he did in 2021 of a modified image of a mosque shown as being bombed.
The charges in these six pertained mainly to promoting enmity, and deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings, but different police stations sought custodial interrogation for what Grover would call an “omnibus investigation”—three police stations issued 91 notices to Alt News seeking their entire records and accounts.
Between his arrest on 27 June and release on 20 July, police accused Zubair and Alt News of receiving foreign funds, despite the site’s payment gateway operator Razorpay itself announcing that only domestic donations had been enabled. Soon after the arrest, police claimed there were transactions of Rs 50 lakh in his account; insinuated that his electronic devices held evidence of crimes; while Republic TV claimed to have accessed a remand application from the Delhi police, though Zubair’s lawyers had not been provided a copy yet.
Speaking to Article 14 just over a week after being released on bail by the Supreme Court, the 40-year-old former software engineer said the interrogation in these cases seemed inspired by Hindu right-wing Twitter accounts and websites. Questions asked by the police included baseless claims made by a YouTuber (who called independent news websites an ‘anti-India conspiracy’) that Alt News was funded by American philanthropist George Soros, hated by the hard right in the Western world, an allegation that also made its way into a Twitter thread by hardline supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with unfounded conspiracy theories on the funding of “leftist propaganda websites”, including by the Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation, with which Article 14 has a content-commissioning agreement.
This and other threads by the same author were also cited by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh mouthpiece Organiser as evidence of how “leftists, liberals, journalists and their foreign handlers work hand in hand to destabilise India”. Another memorable tweet thread by the same handle was on an alleged connection between an Indian clothing brand and the CIA.
For Zubair, who said he was mentally preparing himself for a long stint in jail like other journalists, it was a case of the police appearing to use innuendo and conspiracy theories to build a case against him. “It was clear they wanted to fix me,” he said.
The government’s move to collect all their donors’ information from Razorpay was aimed at choking the crowd-funded website’s operations. They had already recorded a dip in donations months earlier when the government mandated recording personal and PAN details of every single donor.
Elated that donations to Alt News actually rose during his arrest, he saw it as a donors' message of support for their work. Excerpts from the interview with Zubair:
Tell us about the experience of going to jail for your journalism. What were your thoughts at the time of your arrest and then as the incarceration lengthened?
When I got the notice, I had no other choice but to go (to Delhi). The notice was for a 2020 case, in which I had already got relief. I had gone to Delhi the previous month, and had got a clean chit. The police had filed their status report in court saying there was no case, but a month later they had sent me this notice, so it was clear that they wanted to fix me.
When I presented myself, they hardly asked one or two questions. I had gone with Pratik (Sinha, co-founder of Alt News) and two lawyers, knowing they may take action.
I was a little prepared because I knew they would arrest me. There had been a campaign doing the rounds over the previous 10 to 15 days on social media, on Twitter Spaces, saying Zubair must be arrested, that there should be multiple FIRs filed against him, and in some districts, there were promises for prizes, Rs 5,000 or such, for complaints registered against me and so on.
People had discussed my address and where I live. I had CCTV cameras installed outside my home, probably 10 to 15 days before I received the notice.
I could sense it. Hashtags against me have trended since perhaps 2020, but the kind of campaigns they were running now, particularly BJP members and many senior members too, from these hashtags and tweets I could sense that there would be, if not police action, probably attacks against me or my family members.
I remember speaking to Pratik and my colleagues before going to Delhi. Most of my friends and colleagues had told me India’s law utna zyaada gira nahi hai (had not deteriorated that much). But I was very sure, and that is exactly what happened.
Despite me being present there for a notice, they served me another notice. Then despite me giving answers to two or three questions in the second FIR, within about 10 minutes they came back and said we are arresting you for not cooperating. There was no question of non-cooperation, but then they had already fixed it, and decided that they would arrest me. They probably even had a tweet framed from the Delhi police handle saying Zubair has been arrested.
How were you treated while in custody?
In Delhi police’s custody, I was kept well, the junior policemen were good to me. But I could also see how they were playing it outside, how they made it look like we received donations from abroad.
In police custody, when I was discussing this with the investigating officer, he knew it—that we were not getting any funds from abroad. When he showed me the Razorpay Excel sheet, I explained how it is not possible for us to get funds from foreign countries because we've disabled it as we don't have FCRA clearance. I actually almost took his phone and explained, and he knew it.
But then they said what they had to say, because this is what they were being told, including the claims about me getting money from Pakistan, Syria, Japan and many other countries, because there was an IP address. Indians sitting in middle eastern countries might have donated, it doesn't mean they are not Indians.
After coming out I also got to know from Pratik about this claim of a Pakistani donor. There was a person who donated maybe Rs 200—his ten-digit mobile number started with 92. Instead of writing his number starting with +91, he added the plus symbol and his 10-digit number that started with 92, and police assumed this donation was from Pakistan.
They probably knew it but perhaps it’s easier to accuse us—or maybe make their supporters believe—that we are getting funds from Pakistan. That's how they did it.
The initial sections of law invoked carried two to three years’ jail. When discussing with my lawyer, we knew it might take a little time for me to get bail. We thought it would be perhaps after the police custody, which unfortunately did not happen. Then we thought probably a week more, but then after I was sent to Tihar jail (judicial custody), there were multiple FIRs against me filed in Uttar Pradesh (UP). When the UP Police special investigation team (SIT) was formed and there was a statement from the UP police, that is when I thought okay, they're preparing to keep me in jail for longer, like how Umar Khalid and many other activists and people from the media fraternity have been inside jail. So yeah, that was a little scary.
But thanks are due to all the lawyers in UP and especially Vrinda Grover and of course Pratik. He and his mom were fighting non-stop, and also providing information, speaking to lawyers across UP in at least five other places. All that helped and finally I’m out.
Was it unnerving to be taken to UP, given the reputation of the policing methods there?
I remember that in the police van, the Delhi police personnel accompanying me were discussing what the case was and why I was arrested, why I was being taken to UP. They also got to know that this is related to politics, nothing related to tweets as such. They were discussing what work we were doing, me, Pratik and Alt News. At least the head constables or the lower officers got to know what we've been doing.
They said, yeah, we'll have to be careful. They assured me that they would not let even one UP policeman touch me, not even the higher-ups. They said we all know how UP police car palta deti hai (overturns vehicles). These things were discussed.
While I had this in mind, I knew also that my case had become a high-profile one. There was a lot of media outrage, social media outrage, so probably something like this would not happen.
The first time I was taken to Sitapur, probably not many in UP had information about it. The police asked for police custody and that was not given. I was taken back to judicial custody, that is in Tihar. The next day or after two days, somebody came down from Sitapur and asked one or two questions. Then on the basis of that they went back and sought police custody again.
After two days, they took me to Sitapur a second time and that is when a lot of media personnel and, I will say more than 300, police personnel, including the police with riot gear were there. The sub-divisional magistrate, additional district magistrate, superintendent of police, senior superintendent of police, deputy superintendent of police were all there inside the court.
When they were taking me to court, they said they wanted to keep my identity protected so that the media would not click my photos. Have you seen that photo of me being taken outside with a rumaal (scarf) around my face? They told me they wanted me to be protected. They didn't want the media to know who I am. So four or five people, including a policeman, would also be wearing the scarf, they said. But soon after I was taken out, I was the only one with the rumaal.
That is how they made it look as if they were guarding a dreaded criminal.
They were good to me when I was in jail or in police custody, in the UP jail as well as in TIhar jail. But they made it appear as if I am some hardcore criminal.
In fact, they want to scare people who are doing anything similar to what we have been doing (at Alt News).
The visuals of me coming out of the bus, surrounded by policemen—this was actually a message to people who tweet fearlessly or write or do ground reporting fearlessly. I personally think this was all to show how they can hound you, how they can file multiple FIRs against people who just speak up against the government of the day.
The questions they asked, I answered them all. In Sitapur, there were probably 35 or 40 police personnel again, including some higher–ups, five or six teams of two each, surrounding me and shooting questions, multiple questions, simultaneously. I was supposed to answer everybody at the same time.
The questions though were more about my personal life, about my childhood, and about how I started working with Alt News, why I left Nokia, and some bizarre claims about me being in touch with PFI (Popular Front Of India, an Islamist organisation on which the UP police has sought a ban). They asked questions about whether I am linked to PFI, or SDPI (Social Democratic Party of India, the PFI’s wing for electoral politics), whether I have gone to Jamia (Jamia Millia Islamia university) or JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University), whether I have any friends in Jamia and JNU, how long I had stayed in Dubai or any Middle Eastern country.
They were actually shocked when I said only three employees at Alt News are Muslims, out of 15-odd employees.
Most questions were about Alt News and its funding, how we were successful in getting at least Rs 10 lakh-Rs 12 lakh every month. They were shocked that people in a country as poor as India were willing to give so much, people who do not spend money on buying newspapers, why they were giving us money.
I got to know later that there were claims that I'd admitted something, for which the question was not even asked. For example, there was something about me accepting that I've received funds in my name, and there were claims about me accepting that I got Rs 2 crore for tweets. These questions were not even asked.
Either because of the media hype or because we had said in court that there was a threat to my life in UP, there was a lot of security around me inside the jail and outside. But clearly they had in their mind that this is how they had to fix it, about me receiving Rs 2 crore, etc.
That was because incidentally a lot of the people I have called out for hate speech or false claims were related to UP. This appeared to have hurt them. They asked why I always tweet about UP, why not Kerala and West Bengal and Tamil Nadu; they didn’t ask exactly why I tweeted about BJP states but this is what they meant.
A little surprisingly, they asked about Bajrang Muni who I had tweeted about, calling him a hate monger. They asked why I called him a hate monger. They asked, “Do you know his history? Do you know that he has a handicap? Do you know what he went through, it was because somebody from your community had beaten him, that is why he's giving such statements.”
They were justifying his rape comments (about Muslim women). This was by a lady member of one of the investigation teams.
They said I tweeted when he made rape threats but I didn't tweet when he gave an apology after two days. They were saying theek hai usne galati maan li (alright, he has admitted to his mistake).
When there were some 12 police officers surrounding me and asking questions, most of the questions were repeated. Almost everybody had similar questions. I remember at least two of them, one to my left and one to my right, they were scrolling their phones. They were constantly getting updates on their mobile phones, on WhatsApp. I don't know from whom, but they were getting links, and whenever they opened the links, it was most of the time, it was OpIndia articles. They probably were referring to OpIndia articles to question me.
You saw their phones had OpIndia articles open while they were questioning you?
Yes, yes, this was also in Delhi, not just in UP.
I don't know who was sending this, but they had OpIndia articles. I don't know from which source, if it was from the same source or multiple sources, but I could see two different articles of OpIndia open on their phones.
We sat from probably 10 am till 3:30 pm or 4 pm. I could see that. This also happened during the Delhi police interrogation, the same OpIndia articles.
There had also been claims about how this guy called George Soros is funding us. And this same question was also asked to me. I responded to the policeman by asking if he was referring to a tweet thread made by an anonymous troll. The police personnel were like theek hai chhod do (alright, let’s leave that), George Soros ko chhod do, but don't you get funds from abroad including from any other organisations.
Do you remember that the other person who claimed you are funded by George Soros is the String Channel YouTuber who had in February 2021 called for you and others including Barkha Dutt to be hanged?
The String Channel guy and one more person who has made a Twitter thread on me, exactly like the String Channel guy, some six months back. I think these persons are in one team. They tried to link every donation to Alt News, and to many other channels, to George Soros, claiming that he's handling everybody. This is the same thing that was asked during the interrogation too. Most of the questions, I personally believe, are fed from the right wing websites and the Twitter accounts.
How did you keep your spirits up in jail, knowing that a long incarceration is possible?
While I was in jail, I just had to sleep. Yes, I was not allowed to speak to my family. Especially on Eid, I requested them a lot, if I could speak to my family or even my lawyer, so that I can convey Eid greetings to my family and parents. That day I was in Sitapur jail. I was sure they would allow it.
I would request them everyday probably three or four times, they would say upar se order nahi aaya hai (we don’t have instructions from seniors). I was told that I would be allowed to speak to my lawyer or my family at least once, but till the last day I was not permitted.
But yes, they told me the cell I lived in, usme Azam Khan rehte the (was occupied earlier by Azam Khan, Samajwadi Party legislator who was released on bail in May 2022 after being lodged in Sitapur jail for two years, facing about 90 cases). They wanted to make me comfortable and say they had kept me in the best place they had.
I was treated well, at least inside. Probably this was because of the media outrage, and we had also said in court that there was a threat to my life. There had been multiple tweets saying isko maaro (kill him). That would be one of the reasons why the security was so tight.
But there were no abuses, no physical torture, nothing as such.
But how was your state of mind?
At the time, I was expecting to be back in Tihar—I didn’t know then that there were multiple FIRs against me, so I thought I'd be going back to Tihar. It was a weekend, so I thought probably by Monday or Tuesday I would be back there in Delhi.
Frankly I was more eager to speak to other jail inmates. There were a few sevadaars (attendants), a few policemen, the jailers, jail officers, I kept busy speaking to all of them, learning about their experiences. I didn't want to be alone. I knew that if I was alone I would probably go into depression.
So I was keeping myself engaged by speaking to everybody. I tried to talk about people who were facing difficulties inside the jail. I wanted to somehow have this information so that I probably would go out and tweet about it.
When I spoke to those people I felt so bad. There were people who were inside jail for seven, eight, nine years. According to them they had not done the crime for which they were fixed.
After listening to them I felt I should be very, very thankful. In my case people had spoken out, on Twitter, Opposition leaders and many others. I would probably be out soon, but what about people who are in jail for so long? There were people outside to speak for me, what about these people?
In Tihar, many inmates had got bail but didn’t have the bail amount. Some had enough money to get a better lawyer but didn’t know who to contact and get a lawyer. Everybody I spoke to, in Tihar and in UP, even the guy who came to me for shaving or for a haircut or when I went to the library, everybody I spoke to wanted me to do some writing as a journalist, once I was released, on the misuse of laws.
There were youngsters from Kashmir, four or five kids [meaning, young men] in my cell in Tihar, first year or second year students who had been in jail for more than two years just for sharing a post on Telegram and Facebook. And the first thing they told me was they were happy at the outrage over my arrest but there was nobody speaking up for Kashmiri Muslims, not even me.
They told me there were around 33 of them in Tihar jail, and around 150 in Agra and many of the other UP jails. They were all arrested after the abrogation of Article 370, all students.
That was heartbreaking. Comparing it to my case, I still feel I am lucky. I know I was jailed because of politics, because of outrage by the right-wing, but I still feel after going inside that there's a lot of other people, 1000s of activists, reporters and others who've been in jail for no fault of theirs. I'm glad I am outside, but there are many other people who, unfortunately, are still inside jail.
Your case seems to be like a definitive turning point in the attacks on the free press, with independent journalists now believing that anybody could be next. Have you had the chance to think about the current state and the future of journalism in India?
I personally think by arresting me, by filing multiple FIRs, including three FIRs out of seven in UP registered for the same fact-check of a Sudarshan news channel doctored photo, they wanted to show that if they want, they can file multiple FIRs against anybody they choose.
By targeting me they also wanted to show us our place. If you're a Muslim journalist or Muslim activist, or for that matter, any independent journalist, you could be shown your place. You could all be Zubair. It's so easy for them to file an FIR against anyone, which is why probably many were actually shocked—if they could file an FIR against a guy who's been regularly doing fact-checks, they can file an FIR against anybody on Twitter, which is what they wanted to convey.
In Sitapur and in Hathras, there were more than 200 policemen surrounding me, including higher-ranking personnel. They were giving the impression that koi bahut bada criminal hai, that this is some big criminal, just for sharing a tweet. This is just to show in the media that they can attack anyone. They wanted to show this to scare everybody who has been doing work similar to me, or better than me.
Almost all the great journalism we have seen in recent years in India has emerged from the independent digital-only organisations. Knowing that those trying to shut down these organisations will continue to do so, what is the road ahead for Alt News?
Without even asking us, Razorpay handed over the complete data, or almost complete data for four months, to the government. By collecting all the data of the donors, including their email ids, their PAN numbers and everything, they wanted to show to the world that donors’ data has been collected. And people often want to donate anonymously, because they know they could be attacked.
Recently, they introduced a rule that all anonymous donors would have to share their PAN number. Around six months back, we would only request for PAN numbers via email from those who donated Rs 5,000 or more. But later, we were told we'll have to get these details even for a Rs 100-donation. Probably that is why for the past four or five months, donations were going down.
Those who donated would ask if these details we were collecting would be shared with anyone. They would ask, government nahin dekhegi na (wouldn’t see donor details). And I would say these details would be completely secure with us. When their details were given to the government, I somehow felt I betrayed those people.
After the Razorpay incident I thought people would now stop donating, not just to Alt News but to all news platforms who have been running on such models.
If the government wants to, they can go after everybody—this is what they wanted to show. Going after us was a way to show how easy it is to go after any digital news platform, because most of them are run on public donations or subscriptions, not like the television channels that work with ads and government ads, which is why there is greater control over TV news channels and newspapers, but not on online websites like Scroll, The Wire, Article 14 and others.
This is how they want to control us, because our revenue model is completely based on subscribers or the people who donate to us. And the government wanted to show that it can scare off the people who are actually donating, which is how they can stop us and which is what they wanted to try.
But I was very, very surprised after I was released. I had expected our donations to go down by 70%-80%. Instead, I found out that donations had grown to more than we ever received earlier. We had not even asked for donations as we usually do, because everyone was busy with this. And I am the one who usually does the donation drive and I was in jail.
I am actually surprised. People know what's going on, they know why such websites are being attacked, and they want to prove that they would still support independent journalism or people like us, fact-checkers. I did not expect this, but people who donated to us have given a message.
You mentioned in an old tweet that you're not a journalist. Do you not see yourself as one?
They’ve been trolling me for one of my old tweets. I was responding to somebody commenting on where I learnt journalism, to which I replied that I'm not a journalist. But since then, many journalists, many close to the current government, have been trolling me saying he's not a journalist.
Well obviously, I'm not a journalist by professional training. But what I am doing is journalism. Those who studied journalism, they’re not actually doing journalism, and that’s why common citizens like us have to step in and teach you how to do what your job is, by doing your job.
In my earlier interview with you, you mentioned your mum and how she would do a YouTube search for your name every morning, sending the results to the family. How is she doing? What was it like to explain to the family that this might continue to happen?
Even before I was arrested, especially after I installed the CCTV cameras, she could see that something was different. I had also been advised, before my arrest, to stay away from my family, maybe not in Bangalore, because of rumours that the UP police was flying down to Bangalore and might arrest me. I was not in Bangalore for a few days, probably a week or 10 days.
Many of my neighbours knew I was Zubair but didn’t know I was the Zubair associated with Alt News. Many, many of my neighbours and people from my extended family did not know about me and what I do. So they were all actually very surprised. I was told many were fans of Zubair, but didn’t know it was me.
On my arrest, they found out who I am and they decided to support me, they said itna acchha kaam kar raha hai (he’s doing such good work).
The day I left for Delhi, my mum knew I was leaving with my colleague and two lawyers but they didn’t know how the system works, or how Delhi police or the UP police works. They were expecting me to come back.
When she got to know that I had been arrested, she could not control herself.
I found out later that many of my neighbours, friends and family came down to my house to show solidarity. They also tried to calm my family down. From then till the last day, about 50-100 well-wishers would be there at my home every single day. This also gave them strength.
Everybody installed Twitter on their phones and began to follow Live Law because they wanted to see the live updates. That is how they got to know how the world was supporting me. I wasn’t expecting that either. There was more positive news than negative news about me.
The people around them gave my family great support. Pratik was also in constant touch with them, reassuring them. After the SIT was formed, they were all very very scared, probably they thought mar jayega (he could die), but luckily I'm back.
Does your family tell you not to tweet any more?
They haven’t said that, they know I won’t stop. But they’ve slowly suggested why not tweet from the Alt News account and then I amplify from my account. (Laughs) Thoda careful rehna (be a little careful), they’re saying. UP ke baare me thoda kam kar dena (tweet less about UP). (Laughs) They know I won’t stop doing what I do.
Clarification: A term used in this interview, "kids", is a reference to young men from Kashmir and has been clarified as such.
(Kavitha Iyer is a senior editor with Article 14 and the author of ‘Landscapes of Loss’, a book on India’s farm crisis.)