June 30, 2022
The June 27 arrest of journalist Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of the Indian fact-checking website Alt News, is raising already heightened concern around press freedoms in India.
Delhi police arrested Zubair, who is Muslim, on charges of hurting religious sentiment and “promoting enmity,” and insulting religious beliefs after a 2018 tweet resurfaced in which he commented on the name change of a hotel. Alongside a photo of a Hindi-language hotel sign, he tweeted, “Before 2014, Honeymoon Hotel. After 2014: Hanuman Hotel. #SanskaariHotel.” Social media users accused Zubair of insulting Hindus, while others read the tweet as satirical, the implication being that after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election, the hotel’s name changed to that of a Hindu god.
Declining press freedom in South Asia is making it harder for people worldwide to get trustworthy news from the subcontinent. In the 2022 edition of the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which ranks countries based on the degree of freedom granted to journalists, India fell eight spots in one year to the 150th position out of 180 countries, marking its lowest ranking in history. Many of India’s neighbors also slid in rankings during the same period, with Pakistan dropping 12 positions to 157, Sri Lanka dropping 19 places to 146, and Bangladesh dropping ten positions to 162. Nepal, notably, climbed 30 ranks to 76. In 2013, the year before the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, India ranked 140th.
Following Zubair’s arrest, activists and opposition leaders called for his immediate release and an end to the Indian government’s tightening control over the media. We look at what the arrest signifies and why India’s (and South Asia’s) press freedoms have deteriorated.