Video Producer: Anjali Palod
Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam
There were multiple times in the course of his 23-day-long imprisonment that Mohammed Zubair felt the pressing need to access social media and expose fake news. After all, his life has revolved around fact-checking for the last five years. But more than it being a force of habit, this time there was a more urgent compulsion driving him – the realisation that he has become the subject of relentless fake news.
Speaking to The Quint days after his release on 20 July, Zubair says he was frustrated at the string of false propaganda about him when he was in jail.
“When I got to know of the fake news circulating about me, all I could think is, abhi mere paas social media hota toh tum sabki band bajata. Sab expose kar deta. If I had social media right now, I would teach all of you a lesson, I would expose it all,” he said, laughing.
From him getting Rs 2 crore for each tweet, to having connections with Bangladesh, to a mainstream news organisation carrying a source-based report saying that his account has had transactions worth Rs 50 lakh in the last few days – Zubair has had many malicious rumours circulate about him ever since he was arrested by the Delhi police on 27 June.
His lawyers would inform him about these news items and rumours when he was in jail, and while he would try and not think about them a lot, there was one piece of news that really upset him.
'Thought No One Will Donate To AltNews Now, But...'
“When I learnt that Razorpay has shared the information of all the donors of AltNews with the police, I was furious. Because a lot of times before donating, acquaintances and friends would ask me, ‘Zubair bhai, our personal information won’t be shared anywhere right?’ And I would always assure them that their data is safe. I felt like I betrayed their trust,” Zubair told The Quint.
In the first week of July, days after Zubair’s arrest, Razorpay, the payment gateway used by AltNews to take donations, had shared list of all the donors to the media outlet with the Delhi police. AltNews had released a statement saying that Razorpay did not check with the media outlet before doing so, while Razorpay said they are “mandated to comply” with the authorities.
Not only was Zubair feeling a sense of dismay over personal information of AltNews’ donors being shared with the police, he was also certain that this will hamper the media outlet’s growth in the future.
“I thought people will stop donating to us out of fear now,” Zubair said.
But to his surprise, after being released, he learnt that the donations to AltNews had more than doubled during his time in the jail. “That was truly heartwarming. I realised that people have a true emotional connect with AltNews, and that’s what matters,” he said.
'Shiv Sena Supporting Inmate Cried When I Got Bail'
Speaking about his interaction with police officers, Zubair says it was mostly cordial, but when he got talking to some more intimately, he realised how most of them understand what’s at play here.
“They would personally tell me that 'we know how horrible it is that you are being attacked just for a few tweets'. 70 percent of the police officers I spoke to were Ravish Kumar fans. The rest 30 percent also would say, ‘he is a little too leftist at times, but he is the only one who talks about relevant issues so it’s okay’. These were mostly lower rank officers,” Zubair says.
Zubair shared his cell in Tihar Jail with two other inmates, one of whom was a 50-something-year-old man, who was a hardcore supporter of the Shiv Sena.
“Initially, I could tell that he feels I have said something against Hindu gods. He might have read such in the newspapers that we get in jail. But when I explained my side of the story to him, he actually became a friend. Once he understood what I do and what AltNews does, he said ‘your work is very important’. And we developed a real bond.”Zubair
The friendship grew to the extent that when Zubair would be taken for court hearings to Sitapur or Hathras, the inmate would anxiously wait for his return. And when the Supreme Court announced the bail verdict for Zubair, he hugged Zubair and cried profusely. “That was actually very sweet,” Zubair says.
Zubair also became friends with other ward-mates at the jail, who would eventually tell their children about Zubair in their weekly phone calls, and how they are friends with him.
'Wouldn't Be Out If It Weren't For Pratik Sinha'
One of the reasons why Zubair wasn’t subject to untoward behaviour by jail authorities may also have been because of his social media following, he feels. “They probably thought I would come out and tweet about any issues or difficulties I may face in jail. Someone even told be that before I came, a lot of things were happening in jail that shouldn’t have been happening,” he says.
In the three weeks that Zubair has been in jail, hashtags asking for his release have not only been trending in India but in other countries as well. Zubair says he expected support, but not to this extent.
“Usually the outrage dies down every time someone is arrested. But that it sustained for me is really overwhelming. I am grateful,” Zubair says.
The social media support notwithstanding, getting out on bail in a high-profile case like this isn’t easy – several activists have been in jail for over two years in connection with the Delhi riots. “Initially, I knew there is no case against me. I thought at best they will keep me in judicial custody for 7-8 days, but when an SIT was formed against me in UP, I got very scared. I was mentally preparing to be in jail for 1-2 years now,” he says.
If there is one person he credits for his release, it’s AltNews’ co-founder, Pratik Sinha. “If it weren’t for Pratik, I would still be in jail. He and his mother (Nirjhari Sinha), slogged for days and nights to get me out. I would get arrest warrants in various places across UP, and they would arrange all the best lawyers in all those places so I can get bail. No one else would do what they did,” Zubair says.
'They Will Attack Me Even If Stop Tweeting'
Back home now, Zubair says he missed his family tremendously – his parents, wife, and three children. He plans on spending more time with them, especially youngest child, a daughter who is just 3.5 months old. But does he plan on continuing the work at AltNews and more importantly, tweeting?
“My family would be the happiest if I quit, because they have seen first hand how risky this is. But they also know I would never leave this work. When I had my first FIR registered against me back in 2020, they would say ‘leave this. You had such a good job at Nokia. We would travel so much, live a comfortable life’. But now they know this is something I have to do,” says Zubair.
On his tweets, Zubair is contemplating “toning down”, but wonders if it will change anything.
“I might think more carefully about the words I use now, maybe. But then at least three of the FIRs against me are not for my tweets, but in connection with a fact-check that I did. So I know that if they have to file cases against me, they will find one reason or another. Tweeting or not tweeting won’t matter,” he says.
The FIR Zubair is referring to was filed by a man associated with Sudarshan News, who took objection to a tweet in which Zubair had pointed out that Sudarshan News used images of Al Masjid an Nabawi from Madina and superimposed it on an old picture from Gaza, with graphics bombing the mosque, during a broadcast.
'I Do What Journalists Should've Been Doing'
In an earlier tweet from last year, Zubair had replied to a comment saying he is not a journalist. And yet, many journalists consider him one, and came out in solidarity with him when he was arrested.
Clarifying his position, Zubair says, “What I meant was that I am not a journalist by degree. I am a software engineer by degree. That’s what I studied. But when I saw that journalists are not doing what they should be doing, I had to take on this responsibility, I had to do what they should have been doing,” Zubair says.
“In that sense, I am very much a journalist,” he adds.