New Delhi: In what appears to be the latest instance of an attack on free speech in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands police have arrested a freelance journalist for a tweet he posted on Monday drawing attention to what he said were bizarre quarantine rules being followed by the local authorities.
Zubair Ahmed has been charged with multiple offences, one of which is non-bailable, with the police accusing him of spreading false information with an intention to obstruct the administration’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the islands. He was granted bail and released on Tuesday.
On April 26, the Andaman Chronicle, an established local newspaper, carried a news item with the headline, ‘#AndamanFightsCOVID19: Entire Family Put on Home Quarantine After One Calls Up a Relative in Bambooflat’:
“The incident took place yesterday when Shri K.A. Rehman called up his relative who had tested corona positive, over phone. The intention was to enquire about the wellbeing of the victim, a resident of Bambooflat. It was hours after the call was made, the entire family was put on home quarantine by the authorities. The four members include Shri K.A. Rehman (70 years), Smti Rehana Rehman (60 years), Shri K. Abdul Rasheed (32 years) and Smti Saira Banu (29 years). The family is now confused whether calling up their relative was a crime committed or is it that the concerned authorities in Andaman are over concerned about their safety.”
Following up on this, Ahmed, a reporter based in the islands, posted a question on April 27 for the Andamans administration, whom he tagged, in which he asked why families who merely spoke to COVID-19 patients on the phone were being forced to quarantine:
Can someone explain why families are placed under home quarantine for speaking over phone with Covid patients? @MediaRN_ANI @Andaman_Admin
— Zubair Ahmed (@zubairpbl) April 26, 2020
The director general of police, Deependra Pathak told The Wire that the claim Zubair made in his tweet – about the home quarantining of those who had merely spoken to COVID-19 patients on the phone – was not true. However, he did not explain why action was taken against him for merely raising a question that had already been flagged in a story published by the Andaman Chronicle.
Instead, Ahmed was called in for questioning because of the tweet, detained and then shifted to the Aberdeen police station.
Ahmed is an established journalist who founded and ran a weekly newsmagazine, The Light of Andamans, for several years. Besides contributing to newspapers and websites elsewhere in India, he runs a weekly news and views site, being-islander. Some of the coverage there has been critical of the political and administrative establishment in the Union Territory.
Ahmed was eventually booked under various offences, but was granted bail by a local magistrate the same day.
Confirming Ahmed’s arrest, the Andaman and Nicobar Police said in a statement, “Legal action has been taken against one Zubair Ahmed, a self-proclaimed journalist for posting the inciting, false and instigating tweet to disrupt public harmony, violating government order and to create panic among public…The accused is a resident of Bambooflat area, most of which is declared a containment area after several cases emerged from there. Extensive contact tracing exercise is underway in the area currently. However, such messages instigate distrust among the public for the well-established and universal health and contact-tracing protocols, thus motivating people to conceal correct information, falsify their statements, do not cooperate and/or protest against medical protocols and even break the lockdown and gather in large numbers publicly.”
Ahmed has been charged under Indian Penal Code sections 188, 269, 270 and 505(1) that relate to disobedience of a public official and a malignant act aimed at spreading infections. He has also been charged under sections 51 and 54 of the Disaster Management, which entails punishment for obstructing government efforts to contain a disaster.
It is not clear how his tweet attracts any of these sections, especially since he had posed it as a question to the authorities and specifically tagged them, seeking answers.
Islands’ police defend arrest
Speaking to The Wire, the UT’s director general of police (DGP) Deependra Pathak claimed that legal action was taken against Ahmed as he was found spreading fake news about the administration’s efforts to contain COVID-19 in the Islands. This, he said, could have fomented communal tensions in the Islands.
He said that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were the first to identify and report the Tablighi Jamaat cluster to the Centre. “We have currently 33 cases in the state, out of which 22 belong to the TJ cluster,” Pathak said, adding that it was natural of the administration to undertake contact-tracing related to this particular cluster.
“Our efforts are being disrupted by some individuals who are spreading rumours about targeting of a particular community. This can sow the seeds of discord among communities. That is why we were forced to take legal action against them,” Pathak said, adding that certain government officials have also been arrested for such offences.
He further said that any message in social media or conventional media which “spreads false information or instigates or incites people or spreads dissatisfaction among communities or spreads mistrust about the protocols followed by the administration” will lead to a chaotic situation, and people may stop cooperating with the administration.
“It certainly attracts condemnation and legal action against such mischief mongers,” he said, adding that the idea is to “nip the danger in the bud.”
Regarding the arrest of Ahmed, Pathak said, “The legal action taken so far has only been to prevent gullible people getting into disruptions creating law and order problems or a possible communal situation… It becomes more important in view of the fact that the spread of COVID-19 may escalate to community transmission in South Andaman District if not strictly contained.”
He said Ahmed was found to be spreading “fake news” that the administration was tracing and quarantining even those who are talking to COVID-19 patients on phone. “This is not true,” he said, adding that the health and police department are going about contact-tracing very scientifically. He added that apart from the tweet, Ahmed was also allegedly found to be dissuading people against the government’s efforts to trace COVID-19 suspects, and had spun the administration’s work as targeting a particular community.
“The arrest of Ahmed, he said, should not be seen as a case of “violation of the right to speech and expression”. “Law is community, profession and gender-neutral. It has to take its own course,” he said.
He added that apart from Ahmed, a police officer’s son, a government servant’s wife, a revenue department official have also been arrested. “There is no deliberate or targeted action against any group or community to curtail their civil liberties,” he said.
Note: This story has been edited to add details of the Andaman Chronicle story on the family allegedly home quarantined for speaking to a COVID-19 patient on the phone.