India is fast becoming a very dangerous place for journalists. In a clear deterioration of democratic norms, the journalists who are doing real journalism are being consistently harassed by the BJP-led government at the Centre. The latest instance was the arrest of the co-founder of the fact-checking website Alt News, Mohammed Zubair, for allegedly hurting religious sentiments and promoting enmity through one of his tweets posted in 2018. The case is based on a complaint filed by a Twitter user, alleging that Zubair had tweeted a “questionable” image to “deliberately insult the god of a particular religion.” The four-year-old tweet reproduced an image of a signboard from a Hindi comedy film. This is a clear case of cracking down on those who have been exposing the politics of hatred and bigotry. It must be pointed out that Zubair’s website, Alt News, has done some exemplary work over the past few years in identifying fake news and countering disinformation campaigns.
His arrest marks another low for media freedom in India as the government has created a hostile and unsafe environment for the members of the press reporting on sectarian issues. There has been a consistent crackdown on critics in the media, academics, civil society groups and protesters, while the NGOs involved in the investigation of human rights abuses continue to face threats and legal harassment. As a mature democracy aspiring to play a larger role on the world stage, India can ill-afford to belittle the concerns over the deteriorating media freedom. The reports of Hindutva forces, emboldened by the ideological position of the ruling dispensation at the Centre, trying to muzzle the voices of dissenting media are causing alarm. No wonder the country has dropped eight places to 150 – out of 180 countries – on the World Press Freedom Index, 2022.