Sources say that TV news channels’ reportage on Mohammad Zubair’s arrest has left a lot to be desired. They claim that cross-checking and balance were missing from several reports and the broadcasters over-reliant on the Delhi police. These sources then switched off the television and waited for the morning newspapers instead.
Banter aside, the above-mentioned sources are fictitious, inspired by quotes from police officers that have crept into the news cycle since the Alt News co-founder was arrested on June 27 over a 2018 tweet from a Hindi movie.
The most eye-catching ones appeared on India Today on June 28. Here’s their headline: “Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair received more than 50 lakhs in last 3 months: Sources”. The tells us that this alleged information is from “police sources”, who claim that “Zubair had also received a lot of donations,” including some on the Unified Payment Interface, or UPI.
There were no further details. Who sent him Rs 50 lakh and why? Were the funds associated with Alt News, which accepts donations over UPI? Has the money been used? How did the police chance upon these transactions and what did they have to do with the tweet?
The report –which appeared in in DNA – said that the police “would also investigate who made these donations and the purpose behind them”. In effect, we’re left with a suggestive claim from unknown police sources and no details.
A few hours later, the report changed. From Rs 50 lakh in the “last 3 months”, the headline the period to “last few days”. The news outlet did not carry any correction or explanation for this important update. The anonymous sources were discarded and in the updated copy, KPS Malhotra, the deputy commissioner, repeated the claim on record.
The changing headlines of India Today’s report on Mohammad Zubair.
“Are you a news channel or a relay station?” a Twitter user India Today. “Have u cross checked it ???” asked another. There were also those who believed the outlet. “Such a easy money earning by instigating riots in country..How can some one be so corrupt,” wrote one user.
Most noticeably, India Today did not reach out to Zubair’s lawyer or colleagues. Alt News chief Pratik Sinha’s tweet on the arrest was carried but not his reply to the Rs 50 lakh claim. He took to Twitter to call the police claim “absolutely lies”, with a screenshot of the India Today report. “All the money that Alt News receives goes to the organisation’s bank and not any individuals,” . “The bank statement of Zubair's personal account of which I have a copy debunks this falsehood.”
In contrast, the Indian Express with comments from both Sinha and Kawalpreet Kaur, Zubair’s counsel.
The India Today report had the byline of Arvind Ojha, a deputy editor at the network. In 2019, when the police had entered the Jamia Millia Islamia university library and assaulted students protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, Ojha had the students “rioters” because “sources” in the police had told him so. A month later, “sources” that the terror group Islamic State was “spreading network in many southern states”. Last year, Ojha – on the back of his “sources” – that activist Disha Ravi was in touch with pro-Khalistani groups. All these stories had few details, were uncorroborated and without comments from those who faced such serious allegations.
While India Today broke its source-based stories, Republic had access to the police’s remand copy. According to the copy, the channel claimed, Zubair was asked to join the investigation but he refused. On Twitter, Sinha how the channel had the note when “Zubair's lawyers haven't been provided the copy despite multiple requests to the concerned police personnel”.
But claims of non-cooperation soon began to surface elsewhere. By evening, the sources had shifted base to Times Now. “Alt News co-founder Mohamed Zubair refused to cooperate with the authorities in the investigation, sources said,” the channel , adding that the fact-checker “refused to hand over the electronic gadgets that he used to post the offensive tweet back in 2018”.
What kind of gadgets are involved? How many? Why did Zubair “refuse” to hand over the gadgets? Once again, these details were missing. They are important since the Delhi police claims that the fact-checker was arrested because he declined to cooperate. Like India Today, the piece lacked comment from Zubair or Alt News.
Hindustan Times this story too and attributed it to a “a senior Delhi police officer”. Its copy said that “neither Zubair nor his legal team have commented on this as yet,” without mentioning if it had reached out to them.
Newslaundry reached out to Alt News editor Pratik Sinha to comment on the allegation that Zubair refused to cooperate with the police. This piece will be updated if we receive a response.
The plague of sources leaking critical allegations is not new. In the aftermath of the communal violence in Delhi in February 2020, news channels – , for instance – carried one-sided source-based reports that levied serious allegations against anti-CAA protesters such as Umar Khalid, Meeran Haider and Asif Iqbal Tanha. These were police leaks that claimed that the activists had admitted to receiving money from PFI, masterminding the violence, hating the Narendra Modi government and much more. The allegations were always denied by their counsel but not carried in media reports.