Supreme Court Protects Mohd. Zubair From Arrest Over Tweets
The SC granted bail to Mohd. Zubair over the FIRs filed against his tweets and said that the power of arrest must be pursued sparingly.
On July 20th, 2022, a 3-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, Surya Kant, and A.S. Bopanna, granted AltNews co-founder Mohammed Zubair interim bail. 6 FIRs have been filed against him over some tweets he had put out since June 2021. Notably, the Bench refused to restrict Mr. Zubair from tweeting when out on bail, despite Additional Advocate General Garima Prashad requesting the Bench to do so. Justice Chandrachud exclaimed, ‘It’s like telling a lawyer you can’t argue further. How can we ask a journalist not to write?’
The petitioner, Mr. Mohammed Zubair, is the co-founder of AltNews, an online fact-checking portal.The Delhi Police arrested Mohammed Zubair on June 23rd 2022 on charges of causing public nuisance, engaging in criminal conspiracy and for inciting unlawful assembly, and was remanded to judicial custody. The status report by the special cell of the Delhi police investigating Mr. Zubair bases the charges on seven tweets put out by the accused.
FIRs had been filed from 6 jurisdictions over Mr. Zubair’s tweets, who approached the Court seeking protection from arrest. Charges were filed by Uttar Pradesh and Delhi police against Mr. Zubair. On July 12th 2022, the Uttar Pradesh police constituted a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to investigate the FIRs—in addition to the special cell of the Delhi police also investigating Mr. Zubair on similar charges. He was originally arrested in Delhi, but was granted bail by the Patiala House Court. Then, he was lodged in Sitapur jail before the Supreme Court granted him bail. However, subsequent FIRs against his tweets resulted in his transfer to Tihar jail instead of being released.
Vrinda Grover: FIRs Launched to Silence the Petitioner
Ms.Vrinda Grover, representing Mr. Zubair, argued that bail granted to Mr. Zubair was being effectively negated by the repeated filing of FIRs against him. Mrs. Grover stated that case against Mr. Zubair was malicious—FIRs in 6 different jurisdictions on the basis of 7 tweets restrict his liberty. She demonstrated how as soon as Mr. Zubair was granted bail by the respective Court, fresh charges were filed and investigation against him was expanded beyond the scope of the original FIRs—charges under the FCRA were subsequently added even though AltNews is registered to receive only domestic donations. She argued that the enlargement of scope of investigation on unfounded grounds was done to silence Mr. Zubair by keeping him in custody.
Recalling the sequence of events, Justice Chandrachud interjected, ‘He was arrested in Delhi, he got bail. Sitapur FIR, bail was granted by our Court. The Hathras FIR, he is in judicial custody and the police remand application will be heard tomorrow?’
Responding in the affirmative, Ms. Grover added that there were three more FIRs against Mr. Zubair and a police remand application regarding the case at PS Mohammadi Lakhimpur Kheri was to be heard that very day.
Mohd. Zubair: I Have Tagged the Police. Where is the Incitement?
Moving on to the contents of the three FIRs, Ms. Grover argued that the tweets in question in these FIRs had ‘no incitement whatsoever’. She referred to the tweet in the Lakhimpur Kheri case—a graphic showing a mosque superimposed on a picture of the Gaza bombings. The graphic was originally posted by Sudarshan TV, and later tweeted by Mr. Zubair—who stated that as a fact checker he provided correct information on the graphic. He also tagged the Noida Police, UP police and the DGP of Uttar Pradesh and requested them to take action.
Vrinda Grover: There Continues to be a Real Threat to His Life
Ms. Grover then brought up the subject matter and scope of the Delhi police investigation. She stated that Mr. Zubair had submitted himself to the investigation, but that there was danger to his life. ‘There are rewards… bounty being announced on his head’, said Ms. Grover.
Ms. Grover implored the Court to either quash all the FIRs, or to club all the investigations with the one in Delhi. She further asked the Court to grant Mr. Zubair bail.
AAG Garima Prashad: Zubair Not a Journalist, Incited Violence
Additional Advocate General for Uttar Pradesh Garima Prashad retorted that Mr. Zubair was not a journalist. She claimed that he spreads fake news and provokes people through his tweets. Adding on to the accusations she said, ‘Every time he makes more malicious tweets, he gets more money.’ She claimed that the State was not taking action merely against some tweets. Instead, she alleged that the tweets provoked violence—on the basis of which an FIR was filed.
She drew attention to the Sitapur FIR—over a tweet regarding the objectionable comments by Bajrang Muni, a ‘mahant’ from Uttar Pradesh. Ms. Prashad said that the comments—about ‘raping some women of a certain community’—were made viral by Mr. Zubair in his tweets without tagging the Sitapur police. She argued that since Bajrang Muni had many followers, Mr. Zubair’s action was aimed at inciting hatred.
Supreme Court: This Court Can Mould the Relief to Do Complete Justice
Justice Chandrachud stated that since Mr. Zubair had been subject to a ‘fairly sustained investigation’ in Delhi, the Bench found no reason to deprive Mr. Zubair of his liberty. Observing that the power of arrest must be pursued sparingly, the Court granted him interim bail.
Ms. Prashad drew attention to the previous bail orders granted to Mr. Zubair, and requested the Bench to restrict him from tweeting during the course of the investigation. Taken aback, the Bench exclaimed, ‘How can we ask a journalist to not write?’ ‘If he does something (wrong), he is answerable to the law.’
The Bench directed that all future FIRs on the same subject matter were to be clubbed with the Delhi investigation and the UP SIT was to be disbanded. The Bench also clarified that Mr. Zubair was free to approach the Delhi HC for quashing of the FIRs.