Rising concern over attempts to silence AltNews and co-founder Md Zubair

The fact checking website is fighting intimidation by the State and attempts to stifle public donations on which it survives

Screengrab from a video showing armed policemen escorting Zubair
Screengrab from a video showing armed policemen escorting Zubair

Shalini Sahay

Razorpay, the platform used by AltNews to collect donations, handed over data about donors to Delhi Police, informed the website in a statement. It also denied allegations that its co-founder, Md Zubair, had received donations from Pakistan and abroad. Only Indian banks, it clarified, can transfer amounts to its bank account and that the co-founders and others working for the website receive a monthly salary out of the donations received.

RazorPay, which is used by several media organisations for crowd funding, blocked AltNews for a day but restored their services within 24 hours. The damage by then had been done. The Delhi Police, lawyers quickly pointed out, was acting well within their right to seek donors’ details and there is little that banks or payment gateways can do to refuse— unless they demand requests in writing citing what the police are looking for or unless they choose to go to the court for directions. Donors’ bank accounts and details in any case are accessible to the government.

But the information alarmed even small donors and donations to the factchecking website effectively dried up for the time being. The only reason the police would seek and receive the entire data— names, bank accounts, address and PAN number etc.—would be to intimidate individual donors, send them notices and send out a signal that donating to the website could invite interrogation, if not trouble.

Delhi Police, said a lawyer, had the option to scrutinise the bank statements of the website and proceed only if they discovered something unusual. But a wholesale data search can only mean one thing, he quipped, not willing to be named. The signal is that even if people act within the law, they can still be hounded if the government wills so.

There is concern about Md Zubair, co-founder of AltNews, who was arrested by Delhi Police for tweeting a frame from a 40-year-old Hindi film. While he was remanded to judicial custody for 14 days, Delhi Police took him to Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh, 450 kms away, and produced him before a court in a complaint case. The court was hearing a complaint that the fact checker had called some ‘saintly’ people who had called for rape of Muslim women and genocide of Muslims as ‘hate-mongers’. The court in Sitapur also ordered a 14-days’ judicial remand of the fact-checker.

He is already serving 14 days’ incarceration in Tihar jail following a similar order by a Delhi court. The Sitapur remand, it is apprehended, would start once the Delhi remand ends. Media reports quoted Sitapur Police as saying that they would record a statement of Md Zubair in Tihar Jail and once his judicial remand ends, they would seek his police remand for investigation.

A video clip showing Md Zubair being taken to the Sitapur court went viral on social media and caused even more concern. It showed eight armed policemen escorting him on foot through a busy street. While the only unarmed policeman held Zubair’s arm and walked by his side, two policemen with rifles walked ahead and the others brought up the rear.

It was not clear why the fact checker, a former engineer with a telecom company in Bengaluru, was being treated as a criminal who could or indeed would attempt to escape. UP Policemen enjoy some notoriety for violence in custody and custodial death.

Delhi Police had called Md Zubair for questioning in a case in which he had already been granted bail by the Delhi High Court. While he presented himself for questioning, Delhi Police slapped a new case and arrested him. Since then, Enforcement Directorate, which enjoys draconian powers of arrest and attachment of property, has started investigation into alleged FEMA violation by him.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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