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Protecting Free Speech: Offline & Online

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for Freedom of the Press at the 48th G7 Summit, held on July 26-28, 2022 in Schloss Elmau, Germany, may prompt one to think that a different atmosphere prevails in foreign lands. From his speech at the summit, no one could realise the fact that India is currently experiencing an undeclared state of emergency, as the critics of his Government and independent journalists are constantly being harassed. Of course, some of the delegates rightly realised the emptiness of his claim, as far as Press Freedom in India is concerned.

Indian PM Modi

At a time when Prime Minister Modi was addressing the Summit at the foot of the Bavarian Alps, the Crime Branch of the Indian Police arrested Civil Rights activist and journalist Teesta Setalvad in connection with a case on her NGO that had allegedly given baseless information about the 2002 riots in western Indian Province of Gujarat to the Police. The Police also arrested Mohammad Zubair, the co-founder of the fact-checking news portal Alt News, over a tweet he had posted in 2018. He has been booked under sections of promoting enmity and outraging religious sentiments. From these incidents, one can understand that the word Dystopia has lost its impact in India. Now, people (especially journalists) spend their days and nights with fear in this country.

Courtesy: The Indian Express

In spite of all these, the detention of of Mohammad Zubair has a special significance. He is not Stanislaus Lourduswamy (April 26, 1937 – July 5, 2021; popularly known as Stan Swamy) or Varavara Rao or Gautam Navlakha or Kobad Ghandy or Teesta Setalvad or even Kappan Siddique. Like everyone else, he is against the hegemony of the ruler, and also against ultra-Nationalism. However, there is a fundamental difference between his way of protest and others’. Zubair’s battle is literally against the untruth. He, as a journalist, has been constantly verifying fake information since 2017.

No one can deny the fact that those, who are fighting against the extremist and narrow-minded Nationalism in India, are waging a war against a Big Lie. The concept of India has never been so monolithic, sectarian and intolerant till date. In order to establish the Lie, the poison of big and small lies is constantly spread, using the internet and social media. The move is aimed at attacking the plurality of the South Asian nation. Like some of his colleagues, Zubair’s war is against this Big Lie (or Fake News). After checking each and every piece of news, he used to expose the hidden untruths. In today’s age of the internet, the value of this battle against untruth is immense in Democracy.

Perhaps, the detention of Zubair was an act of revenge. He was the first person to draw attention to Nupur Sharma‘s controversial remarks. Sharma, a former spokesperson of Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had made controversial comments about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) during a television debate in May-end (2022). Her comments not only hurt the Indian Muslims, but also angered the Islamic nations. The Supreme Court of India recently rebuked Sharma over her controversial comments, saying: “Her loose tongue has set the entire country on fire.” The Apex Court also blamed her for “igniting emotions across the country“. The BJP, possibly, believes that the Narendra Modi Government has had to endure huge condemnation at the global stage only because of Zubair (and not Sharma). Hence, it is quite natural for the Government to get angry with Zubair.

However, the real cause of this anger is probably due to Zubair’s war against political lies, and that is why his arrest is deadly for Democracy. If the State wants to crack down on a citizen just for standing up for the truth, then one can feel the footsteps of authoritarianism. Furthermore, the Police arrested Zubair for a four-year-old tweet. There is obvious arrogance in this. Authoritarianism has always declared its existence in this way.

Otherwise, why did India stop Pulitzer winner Kashmiri photojournalist Sana Irshad Mattoo from leaving for France a couple of days after Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Germany? Indian immigration officials at Indira Gandhi International airport in New Delhi prevented her from travelling to Paris on July 2 without giving any reason. They told Mattoo that she could not travel abroad. She was on her way to Paris to attend a book launch and photography exhibition.

Sana Irshad Mattoo

The photojournalist stressed: “I was scheduled to travel from New Delhi to Paris for a book launch and photography exhibition as one of the 10 award winners of the Serendipity Arles grant 2020. Despite procuring a French visa, I was stopped at the immigration desk at Delhi airport.” Mattoo added: “I was not given any reason, but told that I would not be able to travel internationally.

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