Mohammed Zubair has had a hectic four days ever since his release from Tihar jail on July 20, as the Supreme Court granted him interim relief in all the seven cases filed against him for a variety of tweets. He is now back in his Bengaluru home after 24 days in jail, where a television in the living room broadcasts visuals from CCTVs placed around his home — a new addition in the house. In 2016, Zubair left his job in Nokia and decided to join Alt News, and has now become a known figure in the world of journalism and fact-checking. The 40-year-old former engineer-turned-journalist Mohammed Zubair speaks to TNM about his arrest, jail time, the support as well as the hate he receives, why he thinks he was a soft target in this case, and about journalism in India.
You were summoned by the Delhi police on June 27 in a 2020 case, but you were arrested for a 2018 tweet instead. Then there were six other cases against you. Could you tell us what happened the day of your arrest and what has happened since then?
There had been hashtags for a few days, calling for my arrest, and it was one of the top trends. On June 24, I got an email and WhatsApp message from the Investigating Officer (IO) in a 2020 case, in which I had already gotten a clean chit. The police had submitted a status report to the court saying there was no cognizable offence. So I was a little surprised when I got this notice a month later, asking me to come back to Delhi for an interrogation. When I asked the IO, why he wanted me to come back again — because I had been to Delhi two months ago – he said that two of the accused were coming down the next day (June 27) and so they wanted me to be there as well, and that it was just a formality. But in the back of my mind, I knew that this was not the case and they might want to register another FIR against me. But then I also spoke to my colleagues, my lawyers and many other well-wishers, and they said that though you have a clean chit, if you don’t appear, they might say that you are not cooperating in the probe and so they said like it’s better if you come down and clear this off. So though I knew I might get arrested, I went to Delhi on 27. And then as expected…
I had taken Pratik and two lawyers to the station. They were sitting downstairs when I went to the IO’s office. And after one or two questions, the IO told me that I had gotten a clean chit and to just wait for some time. He then came back after an hour or so. There was one more IO with him, who said that there was another FIR against me and he wanted to have a quick chat. He handed me a notice under Section 41A CrPC and said, “I wanted to ask a few questions, let’s go to another room.” He took me to another room, asked me one or two questions, and told me to wait. I didn’t know what was going on, but he came back after an hour and said that we are going to arrest you. I knew why, but I still asked him why they were arresting me.
And his reply was that you are not cooperating with us, which is why we are arresting you. He had asked me two questions, and I gave two answers, but he said we are arresting you. Around 7.30 pm or so, I informed Pratik and my lawyers that they were taking me for a medical examination and from there they wanted to take me to the Magistrate for judicial or police custody. And luckily, there was outrage after Pratik put out the tweet, saying they arrested me, and so they allowed Pratik and my lawyer to accompany me in the same van. And you must have seen the drama that unfolded later on… I prepared myself mentally that I will be in jail for some 10-15 days.
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Can you tell us about your time in police custody?
The police were under pressure, so I was kept well in the jail. In my head, I had a different idea about jail, the way they show on TV. In Delhi, I was kept in a room and very few questions were asked — apart from Alt News funding — since most of the evidence was in the public domain.
They asked me about my childhood, my upbringing, my school, college, my ex-girlfriends, where are they now, and questions like these. They also asked me why I only target Uttar Pradesh and why I don’t tweet about Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and non-BJP states; why I am more interested in the government here.
Their main interest was Alt News and Pratik Sinha and Mukul Sinha. I personally think, obviously, I’m the soft target, because of my name and my tweets. But ultimately, they want to target not just Zubair, but also the people behind Zubair, the people associated with Zubair, which is Alt News. The moment they spoke about Alt News, I was even more confident because we know our finances are clean. When we started Alt News, the only discussion we had was that because we are critical of the government the only way they can target us is the finances, so our finances should always be strong and it has been strong. We are confident about it.
What was your time in jail like?
Maybe because it was a high-profile case and there was a media hype, I was treated well. Usually there are 100-150 people in a ward using a common bathroom and sleeping together, but I was kept in a room with two or three others. The other inmates told me maybe this was because I would get out and tweet about the mistreatment, so they were taking extra care.
I found a few of my Twitter followers in jail — who said they have always wanted to meet me. I never thought I would meet them in jail. A police official even told me that he was a fan of my old Facebook page called Unofficial Sususwamy, and that he has been following me since I started it, that he loved the satire, and that he has been following my work in Alt News and on Twitter too. I was happy to know this.
I was kept in ward number 4-B and my fellow inmates were also those involved in high profile cases — not hardened criminals, but some government employees who were jailed. The first few days, people were a little hesitant, but when they spoke to me, I made good friends. One of the guys in my cell was 50-55 years old and initially very wary of me. But we spoke and he was very good to me. He was a Shiv Sena supporter, and despite different ideologies, he would go out of the way to take care of me in jail. When he was informed of my bail, he was so excited and began hugging me and crying. I understand my friends and well-wishers doing this, but someone from a different ideology, being together for 10-15 days, and then going through it emotionally for me — that was one of the highlights in jail for me.
Were you able to speak to your family regularly from jail?
There is a facility for all the jail mates that you can speak to your family for five minutes and then there’s a video conferencing facility every week for 15 minutes with your family. Everybody else could speak, but I was not allowed to. In my case, even after the Superintendent’s nod, I was not given permission because he said that this is a high-profile case, so I was not allowed to make daily calls. But at times, they would allow me to make a call from his landline for about 5-10 minutes. People at home were so worried, seeing me on news channels, seeing police taking me to Sitapur etc, that they wanted to know updates.
You spoke about the sustained social media campaign before your arrest, so when you went to Delhi, did you expect to be arrested, were you mentally prepared for it?
I was actually prepared. I knew this would happen, if not now, maybe in another case soon, but I knew I would get arrested. I personally knew I was getting arrested, because there was nothing in this case, so why would the police call me? Which is why Pratik had also come to Delhi. But I did not expect there would be more cases against me. I did not expect multiple FIRs against me, in Uttar Pradesh, especially. When I found that an SIT had been constituted to probe six-seven cases, I was preparing myself to stay in jail for one or two years — based on previous examples of activists and journalists who are still in jail, like Umar Khalid and Khalid Saifi. I met Kashmiri students who have been in jail for three or four years, they have been booked under UAPA for just sharing a Facebook post. I thought they would book me under UAPA…
Ever since your arrest, there has been a lot of support for you and the work Alt News does, did that help in any way?
I knew there probably would be outrage, but then the amount of outrage was unexpected. I was told the next day that #IStandWithZubair and #ReleaseZubair hashtags were trending worldwide. I was taken aback. Many politicians spoke up, usually they don’t. Many others, like people in the media fraternity and many on social media talked about me regularly. I also got to know later on that people abroad — Germany and other places – they held placards and all, I definitely did not expect this.
That helped me… actually, it helped my parents a lot because they were totally broken. Many neighbours, friends and relatives came to visit, and not even one person spoke against me. Everybody stood with us, which actually gave strength to my family, especially my wife and my father. They are not on social media, they don’t know what the issue is, they don’t know what politics is. When they switched on YouTube and saw videos, those were both positive as well as negative, the government response and troll response. So they were a little worried, but the support and encouragement they got, and the praises they received for what I do, that really helped my parents. When I was in jail, I was worried about my parents and my wife and kids. And here they were worried about me.
When I talked to others who were serving jail time, I felt I was very, very lucky to be talked about on media and social media, which actually helped and my case was highlighted. And now, I am out here, smiling.
You also received an equal amount of hate, with some calling you a Bangladeshi, questions over funding…even a lot of journalists have raised these narratives. What is your response to this?
The hate is not new against me. Anybody who talks about the right wing always gets abused. And I know whom you’re talking about when it comes to journalists. This personal targeting is because we’ve been fact-checking them. We have been calling news channels out, but they have not been able to call us out because we do fact-checking. There are claims on social media that I get Rs 2 crore for a tweet and I get Rs 20 lakh. I’m so used to it. To be frank, I laugh it off. Like I’ve been laughing since 2014, because I’ve been getting abuses like these from the time I started that Facebook page (Unofficial Sususwamy), but obviously more since I joined Alt News, and especially since 2019-20. But I usually mute these people. If I take it personally, I’ll have to stop what I’m doing now.
I will continue to do what I’m doing. My primary job at Alt News is fact-checking. I’ll also concentrate more on hate speeches and hateful content and expose people who are behind this, I’ll probably invest more time in that.
Strategy ahead, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be more careful with my words. But even then, I am sure anyone can say anything and there can be multiple FIRs against me, which I should be prepared for. If I don’t want FIRs, I will have to completely quit my job. There was an FIR against me for fact-checking. I am prepared for more FIRs now.
Do you think such arrests are meant to have a chilling effect? Do you believe you would now self-censor? What would you tell other journalists?
Definitely. One of the reasons why they arrested me was, they didn’t want to teach a lesson only to Zubair. There are many Zubairs from several parts of the country who usually speak their mind and they want to teach them a lesson. If they can arrest me for anything and everything, they can silence you also, even if you’ve not done anything wrong. If you’re just against the government, they can arrest you. By my arrest, they want to show they can file multiple FIRs. But now if I keep quiet after all this, I will be letting my fraternity down.
During the court proceedings, we read that the counsel from the UP government told the court that ‘Zubair is not a journalist’. Many on Twitter have shared your old tweet where you said you are not a journalist. So, who is Zubair?
I have not studied mass communication. By degree, I am an engineer. By qualification, I may not be a professional journalist, but what I’m doing now is the job of a journalist. When journalists say that Zubair is not a journalist, I would say you are a journalist, but you’re not doing journalism. I may not be a journalist by qualification, but I’m doing what you’re supposed to do.