Indian journalist arrested over Twitter post

Indian journalist Mohammed Zubair appeared before a magistrate on Tuesday after being arrested over a Twitter post, a move criticised as an attack on freedom of expression by press and human rights’ groups.

Zubair, co-founder of fact-checking website AltNews, was arrested by Delhi police on Monday over a tweet from 2018 which an anonymous Twitter user alleged was hurtful to religious sentiment.

KCP Malhotra, the deputy police commissioner for the police’s cyber crime unit, said in a televised interview on Tuesday that Zubair’s four-year-old tweet “warranted his custodial interrogation and we submitted the same to the court”.

The tweet showed a screenshot from a 1983 comedy film in which a hotel sign had been altered from Honeymoon to Hanuman Hotel, the name of a Hindu deity.

Zubair’s arrest has stoked outrage over freedom of expression in India. The Editors Guild of India, a press organisation, called his arrest “extremely disturbing”.

The move comes as Twitter is under scrutiny again in India after the social media platform this week made a flurry of accounts and posts inaccessible in the country at the government’s request.

Free speech advocates say that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government is stepping up pressure on popular social media platforms, a year after it introduced harsh rules that broadened the scope under which companies could be criminally liable.

Twitter’s last big tussle with the Indian government over account blocking was in February 2021, as the government faced mass protests by farmers over contentious new agricultural laws. After initially complying with New Delhi’s order to block influential accounts, Twitter decided to reinstate many of the journalists and activists after a public outcry.

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“The truth is that Facebook and Twitter are in India because India is a big market,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Now of course the question arises: are they serving their clients or are they serving the state? And that is a question that these companies need to be asking themselves.”

The developments come as Modi attends the G7 summit, where countries including India have pledged to protect freedom of expression.

Twitter this week blocked users registered in India from seeing several accounts run by activists central to the anti-government farmers’ protest movement, as well as Pakistani embassies in Iran, Turkey, Egypt and at the UN.

A tranche of individual tweets have also been made invisible for Indian users, including one by Washington Post columnist Rana Ayyub and others by Washington-based free speech monitor Freedom House. Twitter declined to comment.

New Delhi has the legal right to block social media posts if it deems doing so in the interest of India’s sovereignty, national security and good foreign relations, or if the content could incite an arrestable offence.

But activists say this sweeping definition often obscures the government’s reasons for censoring online material.

“While this seems to be most visible on Twitter it likely happens on other platforms as well,” said Prateek Waghre, policy director at the New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation, adding that Twitter makes the requests public via a database while other companies do not.

According to Twitter’s last transparency report, covering January to June 2021, India accounted for 11 per cent of legal demands it received globally.

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During the farmers’ protests in early 2021, Twitter said it had ignored government orders to block certain accounts belonging to reporters, activists and politicians because the social media platform did “not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law”.