New York, June 16, 2022 – Indian police must immediately drop investigations into journalists Saba Naqvi and Mohammed Zubair in response to their social media posts criticizing right-wing Hindu politics and activists, and allow all members of the press to work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Thursday.
On June 3, police in the Sitapur district in northern Uttar Pradesh state opened an investigation into Zubair, co-founder of the fact-checking website Alt News, after he tweeted that three right-wing Hindu activists were “Hate Mongers,” according to news reports.
On June 8, police in the capital New Delhi opened an investigation into Naqvi, a freelance journalist, after she shared a satirical meme on her Twitter account about a recent claim that a revered symbol connected to the Hindu god Shiva had been found in a mosque in the northern Varanasi city, according to various news reports. The meme was shared by several Twitter users, including a member of parliament, and republished by the financial newspaper Economic Times. However, only Naqvi, who is Muslim and known for her criticism of right-wing Hindu politics, was named in the investigation.
This is the second social media-connected investigation into Naqvi, and the fifth into Zubair, according to those reports. Both journalists use social media as part of their jobs, according to CPJ’s review of their social media accounts.
“Indian police need to stop targeting journalists who are critical of sectarian politics,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, in Washington, D.C. “Selective investigations into Mohammed Zubair and Saba Naqvi strongly suggest that they are being unacceptably targeted because of their Muslim religious identity and work as journalists.”
Police are investigating Zubair under Section 295(a) of the penal code for “deliberate and malicious acts” intended to create religious outrage and Section 67 of the Information Technology Act for “publishing or transmitting obscene material,” according to those reports. He faces three years imprisonment under Section 295(a) and an additional three years and a fine of 500,000 rupees (US$6,400) under Section 67, according to the law.
According to those reports, Bhagwan Sharan, who identified himself as the district head of Hindu right-wing group Rashtriya Hindu Sher Sena, filed the complaint against Zubair. On June 13, the Allahabad High Court declined Zubair’s plea to end the investigation, according to the independent news website Scroll.in. Zubair did not respond to CPJ’s text message asking for comment.
Police are investigating Naqvi for violations of the penal code under Section 153 for “promoting enmity” between groups, Section 295, and Section 505 for inducing others to commit offenses against the state or “public tranquility,” according to those sources. She faces six months imprisonment under Section 153, two years imprisonment under Section 295, and five years imprisonment under Section 505, according to the law. Each section also carries an unstated fine.
The complaint against Naqvi was filed by the Intelligence Fusion and Strategic Operation unit of the Special Cell of Delhi Police for “inciting various groups and creating situations that are detrimental to the maintenance of public tranquility in the country,” according to the independent outlet India Today.
“I was shocked,” Naqvi told CPJ by text message. “[This investigation has] implications for free speech in India, suggesting that there can be cherry-picking to target certain journalists.”
Suman Nalwa, New Delhi’s police spokesperson, and Uttar Pradesh police did not immediately respond to CPJ’s text message and email requesting comment.