Mohammed Zubair Gets Interim Bail in all 6 UP FIRs, SC Orders Release
Mohammed Zubair, the cofounder of fact-checking website Alt News. Image Courtesy: National Herald
Mohammed Zubair, the cofounder of fact-checking website Alt News who was arrested last month, got interim bail by the Supreme Court (SC) in all the six FIRs registered by the Uttar Pradesh (UP) Police on Wednesday.
Ordering Zubair’s release, the apex court observed: “It’s a set principle of law that power of arrests must be pursued sparingly. In the present case, there is no justification to keep him in continued detention and subject him to an endless round of proceedings in various courts.”
The SC further ordered disbanding of the SIT formed by the UP Police for the investigation of the FIRs against Zubair. He will also be at liberty to seek quashing of the FIRs before the Delhi High Court, according to the SC order, Live Law reported.
In a writ petition filed in the SC, Zubair had sought quashing of the six FIRs, clubbing them in Delhi and interim bail in all the cases. Apart from an FIR registered by the Delhi Police, the six FIRs were registered against him at Loni Border, Muzaffarnagar, Chandoli, Lakhimpur, Sitapur and Hathras under Sections 153A, 295A and 505 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and 67 of the IT Act.
“We are of the view that the alternate prayer of the petitioner should be accepted. All the FIRs registered against the petitioners, including the six FIRs noted above, should be transferred for investigation by Delhi Police,” a Bench led by Justice DY Chandrachud observed. The order on transferring the six FIRs to the Delhi Police Special Cell shall apply to future FIRs which may be registered on the basis of tweets.
Considering that Zubar “has been subjected to a comprehensive investigation by the Delhi Police”, the apex court further observed: “Essentially, the gravamen of the FIRs pertain to the tweets. … we find no reason for his deprivation of personal liberty to sustain.”
Justice Chandrachud orally remarked: “The contents of all the FIRs seem to be similar. What seems to be happening is as he gets bail in one case, he is remanded in another. This vicious cycle is continuing.”
Zubair was first booked by the Delhi Police under Sections 153A, 295A, 201 and 120B of the IPC and Section 35 of the FCRA for “hurting religious sentiments” in a 2018 tweet that showed the signboard of a hotel from late Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1983 comedy film Kissi Se Na Kehna whose name had been changed Honeymoon Hotel to Hanuman Hotel. On July 15, the Patiala House Court had granted him regular bail in the case.
FIRs were registered against Zubair in Sitapur and Hathras for another tweet in which he allegedly called Yati Narasinghanand Saraswati, Bajrang Muni and Anand Swaroop as “hate mongers”. He got bail in the Sitapur FIR but was remanded to judicial custody in Hathras case.
Regarding the Lakhimpur Kheri FIR, registered over Zubair’s tweet about a report on Sudarshan News TV, the police remand application will be heard on Wednesday. He had claimed in the tweet that the TV news channel had superimposed the image of a Medina mosque on the picture of the Gaza strip to incorrectly show it was being destroyed.
Alleging that Zubair incited global Muslims through this tweet, the police booked him under Sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, etc.) and 295A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs) of the IPC.
Arguing that the graveman of all the FIRs are the same tweets, which didn’t even remotely use improper language or amounted to a criminal offence, Zubair’s counsel advocate Vrinda Grover said it is a clear case of “silencing” a fact checker by invoking criminal action under multiple FIRs.
“In this age of digital age, the job of someone who is debunking false information may draw the ire of others. But the law cannot be weaponised against him… The dormant FIRs are activated the moment I secure bail in any case. That is why I say there is more than meets the eye. There is a scenario of encircling me,” Grover further argued.
On the other hand, UP AAG Garima Prashad argued that Zubair is not a journalist and “under the guise of fact checking, he is promoting malicious and provocative content”. He “gets paid for the tweets—more malicious the tweets, more payment he gets. He has admitted. He has got over Rs 2 crore. He is no journalist”, she added.
Arguing further, Prashad said that instead of informing the police of illegal speech or hatred, Zubair has been taking advantage of speeches and videos which have the potential of creating a communal divide and he has been sharing them repeatedly. “Whereas State has to prevent communal disharmony.”
Pointing out that no case of “incitement” is made out from the tweet mentioned in the Lakhimpur Kheri FIR, Grover said that even the language in these tweets does not cross the threshold, and Zubair had tagged the police for taking action.
“He is pointing out as a fact checker that the picture of the mosque used in a graphic of Sudarshan TV is the wrong mosque. And I tag the police saying hope they will take action,” Grover further argued.
“Who is actually inciting? The graphic was shared by Sudarshan TV channel I, as a fact checker, place the actual image of the Gaza bombing and the image of the real mosque. Prima facie, there is no offence made out. And FIRs are lodged by correspondents by this very channel (Sudarshan),” Grover added.
Arguing that since the alleged offences are not punishable by more than three years, Grover said that 14 days’ police remand is disproportionate. “What kind of police remand application is this? They will take me into custody and take me to wherever they want to investigate tweets from 2018 to take into custody of all devices. Is this not a statutory abuse of the power of investigation?”
According to Grover, there are “direct threats against” Zubair. “There is a bounty announced on his head. He is lodged in Tihar jail and he is taken back and forth. Why I am saying this is an orchestrated investigation? Fourteen days’ remand is sought for omnibus investigation. Ninety-one notices are issued to AltNews asking for our entire records, and accounts by three police stations. Scope of investigation is no longer the same.”
Grover submitted that Zubair has been interrogated, search and seizure have been made, and a SIT has been constituted on July 10 for investigating six FIRs. “Thus, he may be granted remedy under Article 32 to prevent the instrumentalisation of criminal law remedy” to harass him.
Regarding the Sitapur FIR, Prashad submitted that the objectionable speeches made by Bajrang Muni did not gain attention until Zubair made the speech viral via Twitter on April 7 and did not tag the Sitapur Police in this tweet. “Speech was about raping women of a particular community. Within few areas, there was major communal tension in the Sitapur area,” she said.
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