NEW DELHI: The Indian government has come under fire over steps seen as attempts to muzzle press freedom and censor the internet after the editor of a top fact-checking website was arrested and Twitter accounts heavily censored.

Rights activists and journalists condemned on Tuesday the “arbitrary” and “unlawful” arrest of Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder Alt News, who has been a vocal critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

He was detained on Monday after being questioned by police, before a Delhi court ordered he be held for four more days for further interrogation.

Zubair had played a role in drawing attention to incendiary remarks about Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) recently made by a spokesperson for Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that sparked widespread protests across the Islamic world.

Detention of Alt News’ Zubair draws widespread condemnation

Amnesty International said India was “targeting” Zubair for his “crucial work” combating disinformation and calling out discrimination against minorities.

Amnesty’s India board chair Aakar Patel said the arrest “shows the dangers facing human rights defenders in India have reached a crisis point”.

Pratik Sinha, who runs the Alt News website together with Zubair, said he was detained illegally and without warning.

Zubair has been one of the fiercest critics of the BJP and has frequently drawn attention to hate speech by Hindu fringe groups. He has faced several legal cases over the years that supporters have dismissed as politically motivated attempts to silence him.

Police cited a four-year-old tweet by Zubair about a Hindu god as the reason for his arrest, saying complaints had been made by religious groups.

But government critics see Zubair’s detention as part of a crackdown on free speech and rights activists since Modi’s ascent to power in 2014.

“Every person exposing BJP’s hate, bigotry and lies is a threat to them,” Rahul Gandhi of India’s main opposition Congress party tweeted.

The Editors Guild of India also condemned the arrest.

Twitter censorship

Separately, the Indian government directed Twitter to locally censor accounts and dozens of posts, including some referencing a report that mentioned the country’s declining internet freedoms, Twitter confirmed on Tuesday.

Journalist Rana Ayyub was among those who recei­ved notices from Twitter rega­rding tweets being withheld at the request of New Delhi.

Anwar Iqbal adds from Washington: On Tuesday, Pakistan’s UN ambassador Munir Akram urged the international community, particularly G7, to demand that India lift its massive restrictions on information, including all Pakistan accounts that New Delhi has blocked.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said India had withheld access to the Twitter handles of Pakistan’s embassies in Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Permanent Mission to the UN in New York.

“These are in addition to many others for which access has been blocked,” the statement added.

In a tweet posted on his official site, Ambassador Akram underlined India’s “another display of hypocrisy”, pointing out how New Delhi signed a statement at the G7 summit in Germany earlier this week, pledging to “protect freedom of expression online and offline”.

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2022

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