Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair walked out of Tihar Jail on Wednesday, 20 July, hours after the Supreme Court granted interim bail to the fact-checker in all existing and future FIRs against him in connection with his tweets, Delhi Prisons DG Sandeep Goel told The Quint.
Though Zubair was to walk out at 6 pm, he was finally released at 9:08 pm.
Hours later, Zubair's colleague and Alt News co-founder Pratik Sinha took to Twitter to share a photo with him, saying that the journalist would be "back real soon."
The Supreme Court had earlier clubbed the FIRs filed in Uttar Pradesh against the fact-checker with the one filed in Delhi, saying that all cases against him will be investigated in a "consolidated" way by the Delhi Police.
In one of the cases against Zubair, for which the charge sheet was filed in UP, the remaining proceedings were to be transferred to Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Patiala House court.
The SIT formed in Uttar Pradesh to probe cases against Zubair was also disbanded by the apex court.
Further, the top court in its order stated: "It is settled principle of law, that the exercise of power of arrest must be pursued sparingly."
The court also said that the bail bonds in compliance with their directions would be presented before the chief metropolitan magistrate. Immediately upon the presentation of the bail bonds, the Tihar Jail superintendent was to ensure that Zubair was released by 6 pm on Wednesday.
Responding to the UP government's request to prevent Zubair from tweeting further, Justice DY Chandrachud said: "How can we stop a journalist from tweeting?"
Pointing out that if there is any tweet against the law, Zubair will be answerable, Justice Chandrachud noted:
"We cannot anticipatorily interdict him from exercising his right of free speech."
The court also pointed out that the evidence is all in the public domain, when the AAG sought for the condition that he will not tamper with the evidence to be placed on him.
The apex court further said: "While, we have proceeded to not quash the FIRs, we expressly clarify that we have granted liberty to petitioner to approach the Delhi High Court."
Earlier on 18 July, a bench led by Justice Chandrachud had directed the Uttar Pradesh Police to refrain from taking “precipitative action” against Zubair in the five information reports (FIRs) registered against him in the state.
Advocate Vrinda Grover, appearing for Zubair, had sought clubbing of the Delhi FIR with other cases against him, and interim bail in all UP cases. The petition also sought quashing of the six impugned FIRs filed against Zubair by UP police.
What Did the Counsel for the Petitioner Argue?
Pointing out that the gravamen of all FIRs are the same, Grover said:
“I am seeking a remedy under Aricle 32 to prevent the instrumentalisation of criminal law remedy to harass me (Zubair).”
Article 32 allows a petitioner to move the Supreme Court for the enforcement of fundamental rights.
Pointing out that after the Supreme Court, on 9 July, granted protection to Zubair in a case registered against him in Sitapur, a Special Investigation Team (SIT) was formed on 10 July to investigate the cases against him, Grover also said:
“The dormant FIRs are activated the moment I secure bail in any case.”
Further submitting that “there is a scenario of encircling me,” Grover also placed reliance on the top court’s judgment in Arnab Manoranjan Goswami v State of Maharashtra, authored by Justice DY Chandrachud himself, in which the top court had granted interim bail to Television news anchor Arnab Goswami in an abetment to suicide case.
“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.”Vrinda Grover
What Did UP Government's Counsel Say?
Meanwhile, appearing for the UP government, AAG Garima Prashad argued that Zubair promoted “malicious and provocative content” under the guise of fact-checking. She further claimed:
Zubair gets paid for tweets: “More malicious the tweets, more payment he gets. He has admitted. He has got over Rs 2 crore.”
She said that Bajrang Muni, who has “a lot of followers,” made an objectionable speech, but even though nobody filed any complaints, Zubair shared the speech on social media and “made it viral.” Subsequently, “within few areas, there was major communal tension in Sitapur.”
The state’s intent for action against Zubair is maintenance of communal harmony, she said.
According to LiveLaw, she also said:
“On May 27, he tags the TV news debate with Bajrang Muni, though the debate had nothing to do with Baba Bajrang Muni.”
Further, the AAG alleged that the SIT was formed so that the local police stations do not callously apply sections, and stated that in the past two year’s Zubair’s following increased from 2.5 lakhs to over five lakhs.
What Had the Apex Court Previously Said?
During the course of the previous hearing on 18 July, Justice Chandrachud had noted:
“Contents of all 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," the court had observed.
The court noted that day that interim bail in the Sitapur FIR had already been granted. On 15 July, the Patiala House court had granted him regular bail in the Delhi Police FIR.