Millennium Post

Threatening frivolity

Threatening frivolity

India's ranking on the World Press Freedom Index declined from 142 in 2021 to 150 in 2022. Arrest of India's leading fact-checker Md Zubair over a 2018 tweet is a reminder that one should not be shocked at the slippage. Ironically and shamefully, the arrest was made parallel to the Indian Prime Minister boasting big on free speech at the G7 summit in Germany. Following his arrest, a BJP spokesperson pointed towards the "chequered past" of Zubair and questioned his credibility by saying, "one cannot become a fact-checker only by proclaiming himself to be one." The same fact-checker had recently exposed the ill-intended remarks of two BJP leaders whom the party discounted as "fringe elements" in a global address and dissociated itself and the government from their views. The party's move, in a sense, was acknowledgement of the work Zubair and his kind are doing. The challenge of today's information industry is not scarcity; it is abundance. The task at hand is to filter out from the plethora of information that is available. India knows Zubair as one of the pioneers of fact-checking, who took to this emerging challenge by floating Alt News in 2017. His arrest on frivolous charges is indeed another hard-hitting blow to free speech and democracy. Zubair's arrest is based on a 2018 tweet in which he shared a screen-grab from a 1983 movie — depicting the changed name of a fictional hotel from 'Hanuman' to 'Honeymoon'. One is astonished at the tremendous amount of deep digging the anonymous Twitter user did to bring forth the 4-year-old tweet which, allegedly, hurt his sentiments. This is completely absurd. Zubair has an astounding presence on social media and he posts tons of tweets — debunking fake news on his own discretion and at the request of his numerous followers daily. Digging so deep must have been challenging for the accuser! Allegations are made that his arrest is an act of revenge against his exposition of Nupur Sharma's Prophet remarks. The allegations may not be completely unfounded, and the government must look seriously into it. Government's failure to initiate prompt investigation into the matter will amount to its complicity in revenge politics. Revenge politics can't be allowed to take the form of revenge governance. When political and ideological fights take the form of citizen vs state, the prospects become extremely threatening. Currently, there are at least two signs that show India is already on the alarming path — indiscriminate use of government wings and departments against political opponents and dissenters, and the selective approach in the justice delivery process. Taking only the recent examples, arrest of Teesta Setalvad, ED summon to Rahul Gandhi and custody of Md Zubair — all appear to point towards unprecedented weaponizing of government agencies in India. As far as selective justice and framing is concerned, it is hardly a mystery that the ruling BJP, centered around the Hindutva ideology and standing tall on the overwhelming support from the Hindu community, counts all opportunities to appease the majority. There could hardly be any logic which implies that Zubair's four-year-old tweets could hamper 'communal peace' in the country but Yati Narsinghnand's inflammatory speeches won't. Also, it is completely incoherent that BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma should roam freely despite her Prophet remarks while India's leading journalist is arrested over a frivolous tweet allegedly insulting Lord Hanuman. From a liberal point of view, nothing stops an individual from being illogical! But why should the entire state and justice system fall to this incoherence? Zubair's arrest has serious consequences. It will bestow troll army with a conviction that they could bring a top journalist or a functionary to their feet by highlighting any single tweet. His arrest sets a bad precedent. Zubair has a tremendous social media presence and many have come to his support, but not every journalist who is entrusted with the duty of speaking truth to power, enjoys such privilege. Furthermore, his arrest will have a negative ripple effect on the much-needed fact-checking industry. Editors Guild of India and the United Nations — among many others — have condemned the arrest and demanded immediate release of the fact-checker. Even if Zubair is released after investigations, and the charges are found frivolous, should he be eligible to file a defamation suit? Against whom? It is time that the country wakes up to the fact that government machinery is meant to serve the people and not to wage a war against them on petty issues. If the fight is allowed to become government vs citizen, it may come down to anybody on any given day, literally anybody.

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