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From Reluctant Journalist to a News Institution in Himself: The Making of Zubair

Shy of wearing the tag of a 'journalist', Zubair has shaped the news cycle on many days of the past year.

Updated
India
10 min read
From Reluctant Journalist to a News Institution in Himself: The Making of Zubair
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Until 2017, Mohammed Zubair was working as an engineer in a telecom company in Bangalore, while anonymously running a parody account of a famous politician only part-time. After over three years of running the Facebook page ‘Unofficial Subramanian Swamy’, also known as ‘Sususwamy’, it had garnered a significant following and fandom. But his facetious takes on political issues, ridiculing the government of the day and its many policies, also meant that Zubair would inevitably have his run-ins with trolls, often even receiving threatening messages.

But none of the hate and online harassment he faced back then had a patch on what was to come in the years after he decided to take on the job of fact-checking full-time.

On 27 June, Zubair was arrested by the Delhi police in connection with a tweet of his from 2018.

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By then, many had come out in support of Zubair, including followers of his work, leaders from several opposition parties, as well as international journalist networks. #IStandWithZubair was trending at number 1 on Twitter globally just hours after his arrest.

“What should have been the mainstream media’s job is being done by individual fact-checkers and independent platforms. Zubair is the leading voice of such individual warriors,” Ravish Kumar, Ramon Magsaysay Awardee journalist and NDTV anchor told The Quint a day after Zubair’s arrest.

"By targeting Zubair, the entire fact-checking community is being warned that today fake news is a political construct that has been created through a lot of investment and it shouldn't be messed with. Meaning let the public consume fake news, don't spoil the game by busting fake news and revealing facts," Ravish added.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) based in Washington DC released an urgent call for Zubair’s immediate release, calling his arrest “another low for press freedom in India.”

But many social media accounts, supporting his arrest, have been circulating an old tweet of Zubair’s where he had written that he doesn’t identify as a journalist. How then, did a man from no journalism background end up co-founding AltNews and becoming a journalistic icon idealised by many, not just in the country but also globally?

His peers in the media say that his reluctance to identify as a journalist notwithstanding, today he is a journalistic institution in himself.

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The Birth of 'AltNews'

Back when Zubair was running his parody account of controversial BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, a few other popular pages critical of the BJP government were gaining traction too. One of them was called ‘Truth of Gujarat’, run by then engineer-turned activist Pratik Sinha. The two did not know each other, but in a funny twist of fate got talking in 2015 when Zubair posted an image from the ‘Truth of Gujarat’ page on his page, without giving the former any credits.

“Pratik confronted him, and Zubair apologised. But that one conversation led to a series of interactions between the two, and they grew to admire each other’s work,” recalled Nirjhari Sinha, Pratik’s mother.

Speaking to The Quint, Nirjhari, who is also one of the directors of AltNews, said that she, Pratik and Zubair met for the first time in 2017. “He (Zubair) came to Ahmedabad for some work, and the three of us met and got talking about political propaganda and fake news on the rise and the need for fact-checking,” she said.

This is how AltNews came into being in February that year, with Pratik and Zubair as its two co-founders. But it wasn’t until 2018 that Zubair was able to fully commit himself to the organisation, having summoned the courage to leave his financially secure job in Bangalore.

Since then, the 38-year-old has drowned himself in work—which initially involved tasks like reverse-searching viral images and nailing fake narratives being centred around them. In the last few years, however, a lot of his time and energy has been spent in going through scores of hateful and genocide-mongering videos, a job that much of the mainstream media tends to neglect.

Speaking to The Quint, journalist Ravish Kumar said much of the fake news that Zubair busts today exposes the ‘Godi’ media and its ecosystem.

“Mainstream media has distanced itself from fact-checking as the IT cell, godi media and the political party in power are thriving on fake news and misinformation,” Ravish said.

“To fact-check their lies is then challenging the government, which ultimately means facing cases and getting jailed...Zubair has continued doing that important work at great personal risk,” he added.

Zubair's Dharam Sansad Reports 'Broke The News Cycle'

In December 2021, Zubair released a series of videos from a ‘Dharam Sansad’ which took place in Uttarakhand’s Haridwar where multiple Hindu godmen and seers called for the genocide of Muslims.

Mainstream media then reported on the conclave, based on Zubair’s videos—his twitter account becoming the source of much of the news that followed the coming weeks. As many as six former chiefs of Armed Forces and over 100 eminent personalities wrote to the PM and President flagging a threat to national security due to the hate speech given at the event. On 15 January, Yati Narsinghanand, one of the main speakers at the event was arrested by the Haridwar police.

“None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for Zubair putting out all those videos on his twitter profile. He could have easily written a report with his by-line, as an exclusive investigative piece. But he tweeted it all out for all journalists to use as an open source, for the issue to get maximum attention,” said Alishan Jafri, a journalist who tracks hate crimes in India, and has worked closely with Zubair on a number of reports, including the one on the Dharam Sansad.

He described Zubair as someone forced to become a journalist because of his circumstances. “When you don’t read or watch the news that needs to be urgently covered, when no one in mainstream media would take on that responsibility, you have no option but to fill that gap. That’s what Zubair has done,” said Alishan.

But Zubair didn’t just become a journalist, he often also doubled-up as a news agency, disseminating urgent information often nudging the news cycle in a direction that needed urgent attention. “Imagine your work being so powerful that it breaks the news cycle every fortnight, that it forces the mainstream press to pay attention to what matters,” Alishan added.

Hours after Zubair’s arrest, Swami Anand Swaroop, one of the Hindu seers at the Dharam Sansad that the police probed, put out facebook posts celebrating it. “Mohammed Zubair has been arrested. Now he must have understood the outcome of sending saints behind bars on fake cases.”

Swami Anand Swaroop celebrating Zubair's arrest. 

Swami Anand Swaroop/Facebook

One Tweet That Brought the BJP 'Global Embarrassment'

The genocidal videos took a toll on Zubair, self-admittedly, but he kept at it.

After posting the videos calling for the genocide of Muslims, he later tweeted: “Can't sleep after listening to 11+ hrs of this shit."

On 27 May, Zubair shared a clip of a Times Now debate on the Gyanvapi mosque row, which featured now-suspended BJP spokesperson, Nupur Sharma. In the clip, Sharma can be seen getting agitated at a Muslim co-panelist and eventually going on a derogatory rant against Prophet Muhammad.

Expectedly, Zubair’s clip got enormous attention, with many outraging over Sharma’s comments. But what no one would have seen coming was the scale of widespread condemnation by at least 16 nations, calling for the BJP government to take action against their leader.

The party eventually distanced itself from Sharma’s comments and even suspended her. This was unprecedented in the history of BJP’s 8-year-rule.

And all this began with one tweet from Zubair, one that went for the jugular. A tweet that would eventually cause global embarrassment to the BJP, known to be the party leadership’s soft spot.

“He is used to facing threats, but when his tweet got global attention, the volume of the hate he got from BJP supporters surpassed everything we have ever seen. Everything can be truly traced back to that moment. They began blaming him for all the violence, including the Udaipur beheading. But he merely shared what was said on national television, he did his job as a journalist,” Pooja Chaudhuri, senior editor at AltNews, told The Quint.

The protests in India against Nupur Sharma’s comments escalated to rioting in some states, eventually also leading to the demolition of houses of some the police claimed as being suspects in the rioting.

Zubair has since been inundated with threats, including by the leader of Hindu Sher Sena, who has since been celebrating Zubair’s arrest as well.

“This Jihadi pig was talking about sending me to jail a few days ago. Today he is in jail himself,” Vikas Hindu wrote on his facebook.

Vikas Hindu, who had threatened to burn Zubair's effigy, celebrating his arrest. 

Vikas Hindu/Facebook

Role in Bulli Bai Arrests, 'Media-Shy'

On 1 January this year, the morning after Mumbai-resident Sidrah Patel found her name in a list of over 100 Muslim women auctioned online as part of the ‘Bulli Bai’ deals, she saw a tweet by Zubair saying he has all the archived links and screenshots of the now deleted tweets calling for the auction.

Sidrah shared that tweet, tagging the Mumbai Police and urging them to take action. She then registered an FIR in the matter.

That day onwards, she found Zubair working night and day to collect the relevant information—abusive tweets of the accounts targeting Muslim women, their past social media history—to help build a stronger case.

”I spent the whole first week of January visiting the police station and completing formalities. But Zubair didn’t get any rest for even more days, just diligently going through all the evidence online,” Sidrah, a development professional, told The Quint.

Finding her name in that list was traumatic as is, and then having to procure all the evidence became more draining a task for Sidrah. “Each time the police would ask for a particular screenshot, I would turn to Zubair. I was in no state to look at those screenshots again, my hands would be trembling. He very patiently helped me by forwarding all the specific screenshots,” she said.

Three arrests were made in the case on 4 January, followed by two more over the course of the next two weeks. “His hard work was instrumental in making that happen. But he doesn’t care to take any credit for it. He is one of those rare people who work selflessly to make this country better,” she said.

Zubair has over five hundred thousand followers on twitter, that combined with AltNews’ own following makes him one of the most followed and read journalists in the country. And despite this fame he has stumbled upon, he wears it almost unassumingly. “There would be times when TV debates would request for Pratik to be on the show, but he would be outstation on work trips. So we would ask Zubair to appear instead, but he would always be very reluctant. He is a very sober and media-shy person, not wanting to grab attention to himself,” Nirjhari said.

Another reason why Zubair actively avoids the limelight is to protect his family—parents, a wife and 3 children. Those close to him say he has been “fiercely protective” of his personal life, and for good reason—social media isn’t known to be a kind place.

Back in 2017, when he was still running the ‘Unofficial: Subramanian Swamy’, Zubair spoke to The Quint where he said even as he functions ‘anonymously’, he is still scared for his family. “I have a family too,” he had said.

Against Hate Speech of All Shades

On the night of Zubair’s arrest, Republic TV editor Arnab Goswami did a primetime show in which he accused the fact-checker of having made an “occupation of hurting Hindu religious sentiments.”

But AltNews has often busted propaganda or fake news perpetuated by opposition parties and questioned extremities of all shades.

Earlier in June when protests against Nupur Sharma’s remarks began taking a violent turn, Zubair tweeted a video of AIMIM leader Imtiaz Jaleel provoking a crowd.

“This is hate speech, pure and simple,” Zubair had tweeted.

Weeks later, he posted a video of a Muslim man Ilyas Sharafuddin invited by Zee News regularly on its debates, spouting hate against Hinduism.

“Why is @ZeeNews @sudhirchaudhary inviting people like Ilyas Sharafuddin who is seen insulting Hinduism and laughing at Hindu beliefs on a Live TV where Lakhs of people are watching the debate,” Zubair tweeted.

Ravish Kumar told The Quint that “only those who have been exposed by Zubair accuse him of being selective.”

“Moreover, if some journalist does find Zubair selective, it is their responsibility to cover whatever he isn’t able to cover, instead of just pointing fingers. But if this is the allegation, a thorough investigation of all of Zubair’s work will reveal that when it comes to fake news and hate speech, he hasn’t spared anyone,” Ravish added.

The Pretext of Arrest

Zubair was called in by the cyber unit of the Delhi Police Special Cell on 27 June, Monday for a 2020 case.

In the case, the Delhi Police had booked Zubair under sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) on the basis of a complaint filed by National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) chairperson Priyank Kanoongo.

However, in September that year, the Delhi High Court restrained the police from taking action against Zubair in the case. Moreover, during a hearing in May this year, the Delhi Police told the high court that the tweet made by Zubair “does not constitute any cognizable offence”.

But when Zubair went in for questioning on Monday, the police booked Zubair under IPC Sections 153A (promoting enmity) and 295A ((deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings) for a tweet of his dated back to 2018. This became the sixth FIR against Zubair.

In the tweet, Zubair has shared an image of a hotel board repainted to read ‘Hanuman hotel’ instead of ‘Honeymoon hotel’.

A Twitter handle by the name of ‘Hanuman Bhakt’ then tagged the Delhi Police on the tweet, saying: “Linking our God Hanumanji with Honeymoon is a direct insult to Hindus because he is brahmachari. Kindly take action (sic).”

The handle, which had just 1 follower, no longer exists.

The Delhi police filed an FIR against Zubair based on that tweet. “The said post of Mohd. Zubair containing picture and words against a particular religious community are highly provocative and done deliberately which are more than sufficient to incite hatred among people which can be detrimental for the maintenance of public tranquillity,” the Delhi Police said in a statement.

However, as many social media users subsequently pointed out, the image that Zubair posted in that tweet is from the 1983 comedy film Kissi Se Na Kehna, by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. The movie has aired on TV several times since its release.

“But they just needed an excuse to dig out his old tweets and present them out of context,” said Pooja.

A day after Zubair’s arrest, PM Modi signed the ‘2022 Resilient Democracies Statement’ along with G7 countries in Germany pledging to “protecting the freedom of expression and opinion online and offline”. Many commentators pointed out the irony.

On 20 July, Zubair was granted interim bail in all cases registered in Uttar Pradesh, clubbed all the UP FIRs with the ongoing case in Delhi, and moved the investigation to Delhi, effectively disbanding the SIT formed by the UP police.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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