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Zubair: ‘A Muslim Man Asking For Accountability and Working as a Journalist Is Not a Crime’

The making of Alt News co-founder, India's most prominent fact-checker, who just spent three weeks in jail for the work he does.

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Mohammad Zubair, the 39-year-old fact-checker whose recent journalistic work made the biggest headlines internationally and garnered a lot of attention towards the growing culture of genocidal hate speech and violence against Muslims in India, eventually became a headline himself when he was arrested in as many as seven cases one after the other for alleged hateful tweets. 

Immediately after his arrest in June, Zubair received massive support from all over the world and #IStandWithZubair emerged as a top trend globally. After 23 days of being caught in a cycle of arrest, bail and re-arrest, the Supreme Court granted him bail for all pending and cases filed in relation to the same set of tweets, thereby ending what Justice D.Y. Chandrachud described as a “vicious cycle”.

In recent years, Alt News – a small team of over a dozen fact checkers led by two former techies, Mohammad Zubair and Pratik Sinha – has emerged as a giant slayer when it comes to busting fake news and motivated political propaganda. Amongst other things, Zubair is known for his tweets and instant fact checks, often disrupting emerging narratives in Big Media. While Zubair has earned lakhs of followers through his work, he has also made some very formidable enemies.

The Wire caught up with Zubair after his release on bail for an interview. Read the excerpts here.

Congratulations on your freedom. How are you feeling?

I am happy to be back. I am grateful for the immense support I received from friends and well-wishers who stood by me. To know that so many people felt that my arrest was an attack on their lives and freedom is very overwhelming. My family was scared but Pratik and his mother stood with them and called them daily. They were constantly sharing updates of the cases and working round the clock to arrange local lawyers for five different places in UP, and also in Delhi. Apart from keeping the work of Alt News afloat, they helped the lawyers prepare for the cases. Pratik was targeted as well, but he maintained calm. Our donors did not withdraw support despite threats. In fact, we received more financial help from them despite no appeal in the last two months.

What was the most painful part of this entire ordeal?

My parents, my wife and kids were scared. My son proudly tells everyone that I am his father. We could not send him to school for many days. And we told him not to tell anyone that I am his father. I think that was very hurtful.

There’s a lot of speculation online about your past, so let’s start from the beginning. Can you tell us about your childhood?

I am from a remote village called Thalli in Tamil Nadu, some 70 km from Bangalore. My father was a farmer and he had a small fruit and vegetable business in Hosur. When I passed Class 1, my mother insisted on sending my younger sister and me to a good school in Hosur. 

When and why did you move to Bangalore?

For three years, my sister and I traveled 60 km everyday to Hosur and back in a government bus for our primary education. Then, my mother decided that we should shift to Bangalore. She had to face some resistance from my father’s family because it was a tough choice back then to move to the city. Eventually, she succeeded in convincing them. Had we not migrated to Bangalore, life would have probably been very different today. 

Also read: Backstory: Journalism Is About Fact Gathering and Fact Checking, Which Is Why Zubair Is a Journalist

Tell us more about your school life.

Even after moving to the big city and joining a missionary school, I had no interest in studies. Initially, I was quite poor at studies. I loved cricket and spent time with my new friends. Apart from one or two subjects, I either failed at the rest or got around 35% – the passing score. I flunked Class 6 and suddenly I was in the same class as my sister. My sister was always keeping an eye over my ‘not so sincere’ school life. As a teenager, if I’d approach a girl at school, my sister would either scare her away or embarrass me, and complain to my father. Phir bhi chup chup kar baat ho jaati thi idhar udhar.

What was the turning point? Why did you suddenly become interested in academics?

My father was really upset with my academics and one day we had a big son-father talk that almost all middle class families have. He told me how much he has sacrificed for our future and that if I fail, everything would collapse. He was so angry that he even said that I won’t even be able to pass the Class 10 exams –  something that my Class 10 teacher also told me. I felt humiliated and decided to work hard as education was the only hope for my family. I pulled up my socks and passed out of school with a decent score and then got into M.S. Ramaiah Institute of Technology, a reputed engineering college.

After this sudden turnaround, my father told my younger siblings that if someone like Zubair can do it, you all can do it too (laughs). Suddenly, I was the role model for the family who went on to become the first person to get a professional degree. Before this, no one, on either my mother or father’s side, had gained formal education at this level. It was a big deal at that time. Two of my siblings became engineers and two became doctors.

Why did you do engineering?

At that time, all we thought about was to make a better life. For that, you had to become a doctor or an engineer. There were no other options for us. I could not become a doctor because firstly I was not good at biology and I had to start working soon because my family had sold literally everything for our future. We had run out of resources and being the eldest, it was my responsibility to support the family.

So, how did Mohammad Zubair, a Bangalore based tech-guy, who until a decade back had no interest in politics get into this profession?

I am a creation of my circumstances. I became active on social media around 2012. I used to follow a lot of pages posting non-political content. My own timeline was filled with posts about cricket. Something changed around 2012-13. Suddenly all these pages started posting political content targeting the then Congress government. I had no idea about what was going on. Over the next two years, the focus shifted from the failures of the government to Muslims. And close friends started posting subtle anti-Muslim stuff online. It was choking me. I felt lonely and betrayed about the fact that people I had been following for a long time suddenly made me feel alienated. At that point, my apolitcial cricket posts made no sense to me and the world around me. I didn’t even know the name of my local MLA or CM. That’s how disconnected I was from politics, but my interest exponentially grew over the next few years.

How did you meet Pratik?

I had shared a post from Pratik’s Facebook page. He messaged me to say I hadn’t given proper credit. I rectified it and reposted it. I found that we had a lot in common. When the Una incident happened, we used our pages to report the story. Gradually, the mainstream media picked it up. This made us realise that we should start our own website. Initially, we only wanted to amplify counter opinions to the mainstream narrative. But then Pratik came up with the idea of a fact-check website. That’s when Alt News was born. I didn’t join full-time until 2018. It was hard for me to convince my family initially.

You said that growing Islamophobia and intolerance pushed you to do what you do. What was happening around 2012-13?

While working at an MNC, I used to go to my office in a kurta on Juma (Fridays). One Friday, one of my managers approached me. He was angry with me because I was not wearing my kurta. “Aaj toh Juma hai, tumne kurta kyun nahi pehna? Us mein tum bahut ache lagte ho,” he said. To see the same colleagues suddenly become hostile and aggressive whenever there was a political discussion at the office, made me uncomfortable. I had neither the knowledge nor the heart to counter them at that point of time. The three or four Muslims there felt cornered and naturally we had no reply to any of the WhatsApp propaganda.

I started reading and researching about it. In the course of my work, I realised that facts to counter propaganda are as important as the ability to disseminate them to a large audience. My FB page – Unofficial Susu Swamy – became the portal to vent out my frustration at the absurdity of the state of affairs. At one point, travelling to different countries as a part of my job stopped exciting me as much as my Facebook satire page did. 

The same satire that landed you trouble recently?

It is quite apparent that I was not arrested for my old tweets or that Facebook parody post. Every old post was a criticism of outrageous statements made by politicians. 

Then why do you think you were arrested?

As soon as my tweet calling out the comments of BJP spokespersons went viral and there was diplomatic flak against the government, I knew that they would come after me.

A senior editor in his column accused you of not upholding the free speech rights of BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma. What is your view of his analysis?

I disagree with his analysis. Hundreds of people abuse my prophet and my religion under my tweets in the worst way possible. I don’t respond to them. But ruling party spokespersons normalising this abuse should be called out. It’s not a debate when you invite people to abuse and attack each other. I also called out the so-called maulana who made hate speech against Hindus. Even if the economy or air pollution is being discussed, the same ‘respected religious leaders’ are called so that they make controversial comments and that gives fodder to fuel propaganda. Apparently, the godi media has no problem with them. In fact, their videos are made viral before elections for fear mongering. It’s a win-win situation. These debates are not organised to critique religion or spread liberal values. 

Watch | Zubair Targeted Because His Consistent Debunking of Fake News Became a Roadblock for BJP

A section of the mainstream media celebrated your arrest. Why are you hated by this media?

They have good reason to hate me. The mainstream media incites hate and celebrates vigilante justice. They have reduced the IT cell to the role of amplifiers. Earlier, when their fake news was called out, they issued apologies but now they do it with complete impunity. My work embarrasses them. They fear public accountability for dividing society and filling people with fear. 

You have watched hundreds of videos of hate and violence, is there a particular video that has disturbed you?

The calls at the Haridwar event and open rape threats in Sitapur in police presence shocked me the most.

While you were in jail, a new wave of propaganda focused,  literally, on your ears was shared on social media. Were you really hiding your ears?

It was the police that asked me to hide my face for security. It was my first time (laughs). I had no idea how the optics of the police dragging me around would be played on television to portray me as a dreaded criminal or terrorist. However, when I realised that this was not for my safety but to malign me, I did not hide my face. If you see the later videos, I am not wearing a mask or covering my face. I even waved to the media in some videos. 

There are conspiracy propaganda theories being peddled about your early life suggesting that perhaps you are Ajmal Kasab who somehow managed to escape Indian law enforcement machinery. How do you deal with this sort of thing? 

I was just another common citizen working towards a better future for my family. One can’t expect any better from these guys. This is laughable but a strong propaganda campaign can easily frame any critical mind as a traitor. It is even easier to do this to a Muslim.

What did the police ask you during your interrogation?

Many of the questions were frivolous and at times revolting. Two officers interrogating me at Hathras were literally asking questions based on a right-wing propaganda website’s articles. When an officer asked me a question on George Soros funding me, I told him the source of that question, and asked him, “Sir aapka source Mr X  ka tweet hai na?” He was taken aback and we laughed out loudly. The police in Sitapur behaved as if they are advocates of the “lovemonger”. They asked me, “Do you even know what this man has gone through to make such speeches. Why did you not post his apology?” But was it even an apology?

How was your Eid in jail?

I spent my time offering namaz and the duas my family advised me to recite, although I could not pray regularly or even on Eid as I was being constantly shifted from one city to another. I did not want to isolate myself and use this opportunity to know more about everything inside the four walls of the jail. I spoke with as many inmates and police officials as possible. I feel that it was an enriching experience to listen to different people in jail. On one hand, I felt vulnerable but very soon I became friends with many guys, perhaps because I was very eager to know their story.

What made you say that you view your bail as an exception?

I was privileged that I had the money, reach, resources, support from the civil society, the larger journalistic fraternity, and above all a very solid legal team. I met many young prisoners in jail who have languished there for years merely for social media posts. I met young Kashmiris whose families can’t fight long legal battles. It brought tears to my eyes while hearing their ordeal.

A prominent person in Tihar told me, “I am sad and happy that you’re here. I wish that other journalists also come here and see the condition of prisoners so that when you go out then you can talk to the world about us and our stories.”

There won’t be social media outrage like that for many others. This problem requires a larger overhaul of the system so that people can’t be indiscriminately denied their right to freedom. I think journalists should focus more on the situation of undertrials, especially those who have no one to run a hashtag in support.

Also read: Centre Doesn’t Agree With India’s Rank In World Press Freedom Index: I&B Minister

Karnataka has recently witnessed a spate of hate crimes and it’s been in news for all the wrong reasons. How do you view this change?

If we keep the fringe incidents of the coastal belt aside, Karnataka was safe from these communal conflicts even until recently. But things changed quite rapidly, especially in the last one year. It is sad to see the poison of communal hate spread here. Young people are losing their lives but there’s no end to this madness. I am not saying that it was hunky dory all over India, but in this part, it was certainly not this bad. We grew up as young Indians respecting each other. There was at least some space for everyone to belong and dream.

What is your message to young journalists?

If I go quiet then the effect on others will be chilling. It’s exactly why I was arrested. A Muslim man asking for accountability and working as a journalist is not a crime. I have to tell my younger colleagues to know that their work matters and bearing witness to horrors that would otherwise be forgotten is not a crime. You should be present on social media and write your own stories. Don’t let the propaganda around you go on without a counter. If every district gets an individual who can fact check or flag hate speech and challenge the propaganda of the godi media channels, things will ultimately become better.

The work of a few individuals, however good, cannot fill this void in the absence of a robust mainstream media. But that’s easier said than done. It’s our responsibility to create space and provide resources for new voices, especially from the marginalised sections. We have to provide training and the requisite technical skillset to them. To imagine that we can create a democratic society without a democratic media and a democratic media without getting fresh voices, is wishful thinking. 

Do you see any hope?

I don’t want children to grow up hating each other or being under-confident about themselves, but I won’t lie – I don’t see hope. In my view, this political climate is going to remain or perhaps worsen even more. However, I don’t think that staying silent is an option. We need to hold on to whatever resources we have, to continue the truth telling. Until now, I have been reporting hate speeches, hate crimes and busting fake news but now my focus will be more on exposing communal hate peddled by the mainstream media.

When is @Zoo_bear going to be back on Twitter? 

Tonight.